From Molecules to Memory: A Commentary on Eric Kandel’s In Search of Memory

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Eric Kandel shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or medicine in 2000 “for [his] discoveries concerning signal transduction in the nervous system” (The Nobel Prize). Nobel laureates are asked to write a short piece describing the research for which they were awarded the prize. What Kandel wrote instead was a nearly 500-page history of neuroscience and his own participation in it, as well a detailed description of his research on the cellular and molecular basis of memory. He ties his own life experiences, especially the necessity of leaving Vienna as a child in the face of the Nazi takeover, into his research, giving the book a more human element that makes it readable by the general public. Memory is Kandel’s life work. Despite the fact that he is trained as a medical doctor and began his career as a psychiatrist, he was always fascinated with memory, and chose to do research rather than have a psychiatric practice. He started his research with big questions that stemmed from his earlier interest in psychoanalysis about the placement of the id, ego and superego in the brain before refining his ideas to search for neural analogs of first short-term memory and later spatial and long-term memory.

Where discussion in class this semester focused on large-scale workings of the brain and its connection to behavior, In Search of Memory focused on the much smaller scale. The majority of Kandel’s research focused on the cellular and molecular processes that are involved in memory. As much as looking at the brain from the perspective of how it relates to behavior helped connect neuroscience to everyday life, looking at the brain from a molecular perspective helped connect it to other sciences and other fields of biology. The molecules involved in memory storage, including cyclic AMP and protein kinase A, are involved in other cellular processes in other parts of the body. Knowing this, the brain doesn’t seem so separate; it can be connected to the rest of the body by these molecular commonalities.

The idea that memory, like vision, isn’t based in one particular area of the brain, but is collected from many different places in order form what we actually experience, is a bit strange at first glance. Still, from when the brain is considered as a collection of interconnected neurons, this way makes quite a bit more sense. Memories involve connections, sometimes of things that aren’t related very logically, but that must be connected in the brain in order for the memory to have been formed. New memories are formed in relation to old memories, added to the network of already established connections rather than being entirely separate entities.

Kandel and others in his time have made great advancements in the understanding of the molecular processes of memory, but there is more to the story. In Kandel’s opinion, “cellular and molecular approaches will certainly continue to yield important information in the future, but they cannot themselves unravel the secrets of internal representation in neural circuits or the interactions of circuits” (423). A molecular approach will help answer at least some of the remaining questions about how memory is encoded and recalled, but more holistic approaches will also be needed. We remember things mostly as a whole, but sometimes we forget small pieces, details that we know we should remember but just can’t place. How are the pieces of a memory pulled to together, and why are some of them occasionally lost? Is forgetting simply a loss of too many of the pieces, or is it something else? Hopefully these are the kind of questions for which new research in memory can provide answers.

In the last chapters of the book, Kandel addresses the idea of consciousness and the continuing debate as to whether there is one place in the brain that can be linked to it, or if it, like vision and memory is spread throughout the brain. The I-function/storyteller that was discussed in class may not be equal to consciousness, but it is certainly involved. Kandel defines consciousness as “our ability not simply to experience pleasure and pain but to attend to and reflect upon those experiences, and to do so in the context of our immediate lives and our life history” (Kandel 376). There are many questions to be answered about consciousness, but one of the most interesting among them is how the physical, objective process of neuron activity creates the very subjective experience of emotion. This isn’t a question we really have the ability to answer quite yet because we don’t know what smaller questions to ask to lead us to the answer. Still, that makes it all the more intriguing, the idea of asking questions for the sake of the new questions they will raise, rather than for the answers they will provide.

Along with an explanation of the actual science, Kandel provides the reader with a background in the functioning of the scientific research process in the United States. For prospective scientists, this information is just as interesting as and possibly more valuable than the biological information. “Collaboration in a modern biology laboratory is dynamic, extending not only from the top down but also, importantly, from the bottom up” (Kandel 417). The idea of being able to make real and meaningful contributions to research as student is something that more young people interested in biology should be aware of. High school students especially tend to have the perception that they will not be able to be involved in “real science” until they have spent many years in the classroom and have completed an advanced degree and are often discouraged from purposing a career in the natural sciences as a result.

In Search of Memory covers most of the topics that were discussed this semester in Neurobiology and Behavior, with an emphasis on the molecular and cellular biology involved in both short and long term memory. It provides an interesting review, as well as a different perspective, since it starts with molecules rather than neurons as a basic unit of study. Kandel looks at the history of neurobiology as a process of “getting it less wrong,” making sure to credit the key historical thinkers in field, even those whose ideas have since be labeled as incorrect. Each new theory provides a stepping stone for new ideas and may even open up new fields. Such a perspective is unusual, and very helpful to have in a book aimed at the general public, who tend to see science as a linear, forward moving process. Kandel’s book chronicles an era of new discoveries in neuroscience, the “emergence of a new science of mind.” But that era has come to a close in some ways, since many of its questions have reasonable answers that have opened up new questions of their own. It will be interesting to see where those new questions lead.

 

References

Kandel, Eric. In Search of Memory: The Emergence of a New Science of Mind. New York: W.W. Norton, 2006. Print.

"The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2000." Nobelprize.org. The Nobel Foundation, n.d. Web. 8 May 2010. <http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/medicine/laureates/2000/index.html>
 

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