Eric Kandel Reminisces About Memory Neuroscientist and Nobel Prize winner Eric Kandel has been studying the molecular basis of memory for more than 50 years. His life and career are the subject of a new documentary, In Search of Memory. Kandel discusses the state of memory research and shares his own memories.
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Eric Kandel Reminisces About Memory

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Eric Kandel Reminisces About Memory

Eric Kandel Reminisces About Memory

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IRA FLATOW, host:

This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News. I'm Ira Flatow. Up next, the star of a new movie who, in all likelihood, will never be mistaken for George Clooney. But then again, George Clooney will never win a Nobel Prize.

My next guest has spent the last 50 years studying the molecular basis of memory in sea slugs and mice. You know him. He's won the Nobel Prize in 2000. Most people would slow down after all of that, but he's not taking a break.

Dr. Eric Kandel is senior investigator with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. He's a university professor at Columbia University and the Fred Kavli Professor and Director of the Kavli Institute for Brain Science. And his movie is premiering. Is it tonight, Dr. Kandel?

Dr. ERIC KANDEL (Columbia University, Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Kavli Institute for Brain Science): Tonight, tonight.

FLATOW: Tonight. "In Search of Memory." Where is it premiering?

Dr. KANDEL: The International Film Center on 6th Avenue and 3rd Street.

FLATOW: And why a new movie at this point in your career?

Dr. KANDEL: I didn't think of it as a new point in my career or as a new movie. I wrote a book called "In Search of Memory," and Petra Seeger, the filmmaker, read the book, liked it, and asked me whether I would be interested in doing a documentary. And my wife and I had planned to celebrate our 50th wedding anniversary with our children and grandchildren by taking a sentimental journey through the places where we were born and we were raised, including hiding in the south of France for Denise, Hitler-occupied Vienna for me, and we suggested she come along.

So this was a family trip, and she came along and she very creatively switched back and forth between autobiographical aspects of my life and what is happening in my lab. She came and she visited the lab for a week.

So it was really effortless. There was no script. There was no rehearsal. Nothing was done twice, and even though I was intensely uncomfortable the first time I saw the film - have you even been in a movie? It's...

FLATOW: No.

Dr. KANDEL: It's very awkward seeing yourself.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: I've been on television. I've been on TV quite a number of times, and been embarrassed about it. But you're right. In a film, it's all high-definition and...

Dr. KANDEL: But it's different. In a film, you're more natural. But I've seen it now several times and becoming more comfortable with it, and to my great delight, there's a good response to it.

FLATOW: Yeah, 1-800-989-8255, talking with Eric Kandel. Also, you can Twitter us. Our tweet is @scifri, @-S-C-I-F-R-I. The new film is called "In Search of Memory."

And it does mix, go back and forth between your professional and your personal life, and is memory something you're still searching for?

Dr. KANDEL: Oh, absolutely.

FLATOW: What - where are we now? Give us a little thumbnail sketch of where are we in history or in medicine about knowing what memory is.

Dr. KANDEL: Well, memory is an extremely difficult problem, and we're nowhere near having a complete understanding of it. On the other hand, in the last 50 years we have gone from having a very limited biological understanding to a respectable beginning.

This is not simply the work of a single person. It's the work of a field, which has three components: very good cognitive psychology, good neural science and molecular biology. And these three disciplines have emerged in sort of a new science of memory.

And we now understand how short-term memory is laid down, how it's converted to long-term memory, and how memory is retained for long periods of time and how different regions of the brain are involved in storing different kinds of memories.

FLATOW: How - and you've been instrumental in actually looking at individual nerve cells, neurons, and their connections, and you've discovered how -actually what goes on in the cell.

Dr. KANDEL: That's right.

FLATOW: What goes on in the cell to create a memory?

Dr. KANDEL: Well, we found that what is critical is that the connections between nerve cells, the point where one cell communicates with another, is not fixed but can be modified by learning. And when you produce a short-term memory, you modify that connection transiently, and you don't see any anatomical change.

It's a functional change, a biochemical change within the cells, but if you produce a long-term memory, like if you remember our conversation tomorrow, it's because anatomical changes will have occurred in your brain, in the connections between nerve cells, and there's actually a growth of new synaptic connections with long-term memory, and we can trace this in detail.

FLATOW: What starts the growth of new (unintelligible)...

Dr. KANDEL: That's a very good question. What we found is that when you produce a short-term memory, it not only establishes a functional change, but it sends a signal back to the nucleus to turn on genes, and these genes turn on other genes that give rise to proteins that give rise to the growth of new synaptic connections.

So you can actually follow the movement of molecules from the nucleus out to the synapse. It's a communication between the nucleus and the synapse.

FLATOW: Would anybody have thought of that years ago beside you? I mean, what...

Dr. KANDEL: I was not the only one to think about it. So let's put this into context. A giant, perhaps the most important giant in all of neuroscience, is a guy called Ramoni Kahal(ph), and he suggested in 1896 that maybe long-term memory involves the growth of new connections. So that idea was around.

It was not the only idea. There were other ideas, and there was no way of knowing at time zero which of several attractive ideas are right. So you've got to do the experiments.

One didn't know specifically the genes are regulated, but we knew from other people's work, not my own, that long-term memory differed fundamentally from short-term memory in requiring the synthesis of new proteins.

So as molecular biology came along, you could see what kind of synthesis was required. So I could be the first one to show genes are switched on, which particular gene. It's something called CREB, cyclic AMP response element binding protein. That's mumbo jumbo for saying a regulator of gene expression is turned on. But there was some intellectual background. It wasn't a complete jungle.

FLATOW: But that implies when a gene is turned on, there's some permanency to it, right?

Dr. KANDEL: That's right, that's right, that's right.

FLATOW: And that's the difference between short-term and long-term memory.

Dr. KANDEL: That's exactly correct, Ira. That's right.

FLATOW: Yeah, and how can - can you reverse that permanency?

Dr. KANDEL: Yes, there are things that turn that off. For example, with time, certain kinds of long-term memories wear off. If you send an opposing signal in at the same time, you can shut off the growth of new synaptic connections.

There are a lot of inhibitory constraints on memory. So if you activate them, you can prevent what normally would be a memory storage from occurring.

FLATOW: There was some news out this week in some research papers about that actually light can influence neuron brain cells. I mean, there was different colors of light turning things on and off.

Dr. KANDEL: Well, certainly light coming in through the retina can influence them dramatically because color is a very powerful motivator for people. In addition, there are now experimental techniques whereby you can shine light onto nerve cells and activate them selectively or shut them off.

FLATOW: How could you make use of that if the nerve cells would be inside your brain?

Dr. KANDEL: Well, you have to implant the light guide into the brain.

FLATOW: Oh, you would?

Dr. KANDEL: And this is not for people. This is experimental work in experimental animal. It's called channelrhodopsin, in which you have a light-sensitive ion channel that can either activate a nerve cell or shut it off. It's a very powerful technique for studying how neural circuits work in the brain.

FLATOW: Now, where is the frontier in memory?

Dr. KANDEL: Well, there are many frontiers. One is: How do we recall memory? We know very little about the recall process, number one. Number two, almost every major psychiatric disorder has a memory deficit with it. The most obvious cases are Alzheimer's disease or age-related memory loss, which is a non-Alzheimer form of memory.

What goes wrong under these circumstances, and how can we reverse those processes? But in addition, schizophrenia has a defect in working memory. Depression has a severe defect in memory storage. Anxiety states, post-traumatic stress, too much memory. You know, I remember too well what happened to me in Vienna.

So there are a variety of disturbances of memory storage that we would like to understand better so we can intervene more effectively for medical good.

FLATOW: Now, if I were your shrink or your psychiatrist at this moment, I would say: Why did you bring that up? I remember too much what happened to me in Vienna. Do you remember too much what happened to you in Vienna?

Dr. KANDEL: I don't consciously think it that way, but when I examine my life and I see how often I've come back to themes that started in Vienna - I'm doing a book now on art and science, and it's focused on the fact that unconscious psychological process, a Viennese discovery, were discovered independently by Freud, Schnitzler and three Austrian painters, Klimt, Kokoschka and Schiele.

Now, why is a nice Jewish boy like me going back to this? So I can give you a half a dozen examples of this kind.

FLATOW: But you don't have such great memories of Vienna.

Dr. KANDEL: No.

FLATOW: No.

Dr. KANDEL: No.

FLATOW: They're painful memories.

Dr. KANDEL: Very painful.

FLATOW: The Nazis coming in, and it's part of your film.

Dr. KANDEL: I was eight years old when Hitler came into Vienna, and the crowds streamed into the streets welcoming him and turned against the Jews in the most brutal way. And Vienna as a city is very beautiful, and the government of Austria is very progressive at this point. But there's still strong remnants of anti-Semitism, which I can sense in certain parts of the country.

FLATOW: Still?

Dr. KANDEL: Yes.

FLATOW: Still. So why did you go back? Why did you take the film crew back?

Dr. KANDEL: I actually went back, at first, for scientific reasons.

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. KANDEL: I was invited to come back. And I found it very difficult to come back. I found it easy in Germany, where, for historical reasons, Germany was declared a defeated nation that had participated in the Holocaust. And people were honest about - they were forced to be honest, and they were honest about the history.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. KANDEL: For complicated historical reasons, Austria was defined as a victim. And therefore, they could play down the active role in the Hitler period, which was an extremely active role. There were more Austrians per capita of Austria leading concentration camps than there were Germans. And there was a long history of anti-Semitism in Vienna.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. KANDEL: A very famous mayor of Vienna, a guy called Lueger, who was the first one to develop political anti-Semitism, realized that anti-Semitism is a very successful political platform. If you get the population angry at people who have education or financial resources, this can be very successful for getting poor people agitated. So there are historical roots for this. But I like to think that maybe this particular point, where people listen to me, I can be useful in bringing about change.

FLATOW: And what kind of change, now that you have the stage?

Dr. KANDEL: I'm trying to do several things. One is Lueger, the mayor of Vienna, has a part of the Ringstrasse named after him. That would be bad enough. But the part of the Ringstrasse that's named after him happens to be the very place where the University of Vienna - the citadel of morality in a state - sits, the most important university in Austria. And I find it unacceptable.

And I'm trying to encourage people to see it that way and to change the name of it to University Ring or something like that, number one. Number two, I'm trying to help certain scientific organizations in Vienna grow. And one of the reasons I like to do this is because I would like them to establish roots for encouraging Jewish immigration so that one can reestablish a vibrant Jewish community in Vienna.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Talking with Eric Kandel on Science Friday from NPR News. I'm Ira Flatow.

And Dr. Kandel is - has a new film premiering tonight, "In Search of Memory," based on his book in which you went back to Vienna and looked at your roots, painful memories, and decided - as you're telling me now - things that you would like to have changed. Two out of three - what is the third?

Dr. KANDEL: Well, I think I mentioned all three...

FLATOW: Yeah, right.

Dr. KANDEL: ...to change the Lueger ring, to build the scientific community in Austria, and to use that as a vehicle for bringing Jewish students in and energizing the Jewish community in Vienna.

FLATOW: And you think you're making progress with these things.

Dr. KANDEL: Progress in political scheme is slower than scientific progress, if it's possible.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Yeah, if it's possible at all. It's easier to do something in science than it is to do in politics.

Dr. KANDEL: It absolutely is. There's no question about that.

FLATOW: And that shows the resistance that you're saying to still, the anti-Semitic resistance you feel in Vienna.

Dr. KANDEL: Absolutely. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

FLATOW: Yeah, to getting there. When you went there - and your father owned a store.

Dr. KANDEL: My father owned a small toy store in Vienna. And the location of that store is still there. And a wonderful woman who now sort of runs a small delicatessen luncheonette out of there really remembers the fact that this is my father's store, has a picture of my book in the window, which is quite touching. And this is a woman who's - you know, you and I would be completely comfortable with.

FLATOW: Right, right.

Dr. KANDEL: Just a wonderful human being. So I must say, I mean, Vienna has changed a lot. I'm saying there are still islands of difficulty, but there is a movement in the right direction.

FLATOW: And in the film, "In Search of Memory," you take us, actually, into the store.

Dr. KANDEL: Into that little store.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Any remnants of your father? Was it like you remember when you were a kid?

Dr. KANDEL: Well, the door is the same. And she said that they have all agreed that the door will not change.

FLATOW: But everything else is just about different.

Talking with Eric Kandel, author of "In Search of Memory," now the new movie that's debuting. 1-800-989-8255. We've got the whole rest of the hour to talk to him about this.

Is there anything you would change about your life or any direction different of your research you would change? You know that life is all taking different paths.

Dr. KANDEL: Well, I must say, I think that my life has been extremely fortunate. I mean, the most fortunate thing is I ended up in America. I mean, this is a spectacular country. I think a number of refugees like myself actually were slow to see weaknesses in the American position, for example, in Vietnam...

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. KANDEL: ...because we thought for the longest time, this country is perfect. And I would say that even though this country has done bad things, has made mistakes, at its worst moments...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. KANDEL: ...for us...

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. KANDEL: ...this is a fairly wonderful place to live. So number one, I was very fortunate with that.

Number two, the way one moves ahead in society is through education. This is always been important for Jews, and I was sensitive to that. And I was very lucky to have a wonderful education. I went to a parochial school to begin with, but then I went to a public high school, Erasmus, where I had a spectacular education, a wonderful experience in which my high school teacher actually gave me the money to apply to Harvard. I mean, can you think of that?

FLATOW: Wow. That's in - from Brooklyn. Yeah.

Dr. KANDEL: So, and I went to Harvard. I had a great education. I decided at the spur of the moment that, because of a woman friend that I formed a friendship with, that I would go to medical school to become a psychoanalyst. I'd been majoring in intellectual history.

FLATOW: Well, it came from Vienna too, so...

Dr. KANDEL: Fits again.

FLATOW: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. KANDEL: And I went to medical school with the idea of becoming a psychoanalyst. And I took an elective in neurobiology and found...

FLATOW: Wow. Yes.

Dr. KANDEL: ...boy, I like this even more than psychoanalysis. This is the future. I was completely incompetent as a neurobiologist, but because of this minimal training, I was selected by the NIH as an alternative to the draft. I had three years of wonderful training.

FLATOW: Now, we'll go on from that - talking with Dr. Eric Kandel. He is -stars in his new film that's premiering tonight. "In Search of Memory" opens today - also the topic of his book; Nobel Prize winner, 2000.

Our number: 1-800-989-8255. Stay with us. We'll be right back after this break.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: You're listening to SCIENCE Friday from NPR News. I'm Ira Flatow.

We're talking this hour about memory with my guest Eric Kandel, senior investigator with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, a university professor at Columbia University. How long you been at Columbia? Like, forever.

Dr. KANDEL: I've been at Columbia since 1974. Columbia is the most fantastic place. I just feel privileged to be there, and in my field, it's just superb.

FLATOW: It is. And they've encouraged you and supported you in all...

Dr. KANDEL: They've given me tremendous freedom. They've given tremendous support, both, you know, intellectual support and personal support.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255 is our number. Dr. Kandel's film is opening in New York today, "In Search of Memory." I hope it gets to other places around the country.

Dr. KANDEL: I hope it will. I hope it will. One of the things I like about the film...

FLATOW: Yeah.

Dr. KANDEL: ...this is self-promotion...

FLATOW: That's good. That's why we're all here.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. KANDEL: ...is that - and actually, this is a Columbia theme. This is not unique with me. Lee Bollinger, our president, really enunciated this a long time ago, that science is part of culture. It's - you're a perfect example of this, Ira. There's no reason why the most arcane subject in science can't be explained so all of us can understand it. And I think it's very important to communicate science to other people. And the film does this, in very modest way.

FLATOW: Yeah.

Dr. KANDEL: This is important for several reasons. One is the workforce in science is small. And that's for two reasons: People think that this is not economically the most profitable to way to have a life. I think that's misleading.

Granted, my salary is not comparable to a major person on Wall Street, but the quality of my life is remarkably good. I mean, I get invited to meetings all over the world. I get invited to dinners and things like this - not only at this particular point in my life, but throughout my career.

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. KANDEL: So I think the quality of life in a university is extremely rewarding. And it compensates for any, you know, slight decrease in salary or even significant decrease in salary you would have.

But in addition, I think it's important for people to understand the science that surrounds them. We're involved in a technologically sophisticated universe. We're asked to make a decision all the time about the purity of water, the nature of memory storage. Should we interfere with it? Should we enhance it?

These are difficult decisions that can - must be made by scientists - must be made by the community, by the public. These are not decisions that scientists can make. Scientists can recommend things, but these are public policies. And unless the public is informed, it can't make rational decisions. So I think communication of this sort, on the part of many people in science, is an essential feature. Also, we're funded by the public.

FLATOW: Yeah.

Dr. KANDEL: They support our work. They deserve and they want an explanation.

FLATOW: And it's tough getting science news out to the public. Major media don't cover very much of it.

Dr. KANDEL: It's gotten better over the last decades. I mean, there's a Science Times issue every Tuesday. There's progress. But it's nowhere as strong as it should be.

FLATOW: Yeah. I was watching all the year-end, you know, news in review shows. And I saw how few - the paucity...

Dr. KANDEL: Very few.

FLATOW: ...covered very - you didn't think anything happen in science all year long, right?

Dr. KANDEL: Yes. This is absolutely right.

FLATOW: Just all politics...

Dr. KANDEL: Absolutely right.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255. Well, let's go to Rona(ph) in Marble Canyon, Arizona. Where is Marble Canyon, Rona?

RONA (Caller): It's north of Flagstaff, two and a half hours. It's almost on the Utah border. And it's spectacularly beautiful.

FLATOW: Little chilly there today, right?

RONA: Mm, no. Not...

FLATOW: No?

RONA: We don't get - it's a little bit of a paradise and Shangri-la here.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: I'm heading out. I'm heading out there.

Dr. KANDEL: That sounds great.

FLATOW: Eric and I are catching the next plane.

RONA: Except it's very, very hot in the summer.

Dr. KANDEL: Will you send a private jet for us?

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Have you got a question for Dr. Kandel?

RONA: Yes. Well, first of all, I should say I am exactly the person that you had just said Dr. Kandel is talking about, a non-scientist. And I rely on this program to - hello?

FLATOW: Yes. I'm...

Dr. KANDEL: Yes. We were...

FLATOW: I'm soaking it all in. Thank you.

Dr. KANDEL: You're in good hands with Ira.

FLATOW: Thank you very much.

RONA: Yes, to make me aware. And while I don't understand details, I get the concepts.

Dr. KANDEL: I think you...

RONA: And I can listen to anybody intelligently. I'm not going to open my mouth (laughs) and say anything. But it's very - I'm that person that Ira said. And it's exactly what my comment is, because I read "In Search of Memory" when it first came out because I was a close friend of both Irving and Kerstin Kupfermann.

Dr. KANDEL: Oh, my gosh.

RONA: Yes. And I miss Irving terribly.

Dr. KANDEL: I miss Irving terribly.

RONA: And...

Dr. KANDEL: So are you a psychoanalyst?

RONA: ...when - then they gave a party for you. And when your first book came out, I was there. You know, and I always heard them talking about you. And even way back then in the early '70s, and they said, well, you know, Eric is sure to get the Nobel Prize. I remembered Irving and Tom Carew talking...

FLATOW: Wow.

RONA: ...and saying that.

Dr. KANDEL: That's wonderful.

RONA: You know, that was the estimate that the, you know, the lab people had...

Dr. KANDEL: That's so nice to hear.

RONA: Esteem, you know. Anyway, so I read "In Search of Memory" thinking I wouldn't understand anything, but I would read about you and Irving and Tom and Vincent(ph) and Lise(ph). And your writing was so lucid and fascinating and the diagrams were really easy to follow. And, you know, I went back and reread pages as I went along, but I did understand in exactly the way...

FLATOW: That's great.

RONA: ...that you were just describing.

FLATOW: And that, I think, is his talent. That's your - that's a talent.

Dr. KANDEL: I think it's one that was so satisfying. But this is obviously what I try to do, and I must say I enjoy doing it. It's very satisfying to teach, to explain something to another person. And to think that somebody like you gets an insight into how the brain works as a result of this is very satisfying. And I completely agree you. I go to a lot of lectures in which I do not understand all the details. But coming away with a key concept is very important.

FLATOW: All right, thanks. And thank you, Rona, for calling and for that memory.

RONA: My pleasure, and I love your show, Ira.

Dr. KANDEL: Rona, that's wonderful. Can I ask you a question before you leave? You must have lived in Port Washington, is that right?

RONA: No. I used to visit almost every weekend.

Dr. KANDEL: I see.

RONA: And that's when I first learned about Aplysia.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. KANDEL: I see. Well...

RONA: And I love that picture of Aplysia with the Nobel...

Dr. KANDEL: Nobel Prize. That's one of my favorite pictures.

RONA: Yes.

FLATOW: All right. Rona, thanks for calling.

RONA: My pleasure.

Dr. KANDEL: Thank you so much.

RONA: Thank you and I wish I could - were in New York for the opening, but someday I'll see the movie.

FLATOW: Ask them to bring it out to your neighborhood.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. KANDEL: If you ask, they'll probably bring it.

FLATOW: Thanks a lot, Rona. Take care.

RONA: Bye.

FLATOW: Bye. 1-800-98 - it's a small world.

Dr. KANDEL: That's amazing. Amazing.

FLATOW: That's, like, two degrees of separation.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. KANDEL: Amazing.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255 is our number. Let's see if we can get a few more memory questions here, because a lot of folks want to ask. I've been hogging the air. Jim in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Hi, Jim.

JIM (Caller): Hi. How are you doing?

FLATOW: Hi, there.

JIM: I'm a retired physics teacher, and I have a nice question, I think, on memory that relates to three short personal experiences. The first one was in the summer before I went to grad school, when my parents were on a vacation I was fending for myself I fried up some pork chops with onions. Now, later, many years later, I made the same meal, and the odor of pork chops and onions is very unusual. I think it's unique. And it brought back, immediately, all the events around me from that summer - a friend was going into the military. I had certain record - music in the background. I could tell you the color of shirt I was wearing.

Now, the second experience is when I start up a power lawnmower where you mix the oil and the gasoline together, the odor of that immediately brings back when I was a child and my father had outboard motors.

FLATOW: Jim, I got - I want a - could you speed up the question, because I have other listeners who want to ask. So...

JIM: Yes. Is odor the best trigger for memory?

Dr. KANDEL: That is a wonderful question. Odor is a very, very powerful trigger of memory. And from a literary point of view, it is the most important, because as you probably know, Proust makes the point that when he dipped a madeleine into the tea, the odor that arose from that brought back the childhood experience of having the madeleine and tea. And the whole outpouring of his earlier memories came back to him as a result of that olfactory experience. So you're in very good company, Jim.

JIM: Thank you.

Dr. KANDEL: You're in the company with Proust, one of the great thinkers about memory storage.

FLATOW: Thanks, Jim. 1-800-989-8255. Here's a note coming from Second Life, an interesting one: What is about neurons that make them so susceptible to oxygen starvation by comparison to other cell types?

Dr. KANDEL: Terrific question. Neurons have a big job, so most cells are relatively small and self-contained. The neuron has a part to it called the cell body, where it has the machinery for making energy. And that small part has to support a long extension that is absolutely gigantic compared to the size of the energy storage depot, and it's got to constantly maintain the nutrition for all of that. So you can imagine the slightest insult to the energy-producing machinery compromises a neuron much more than any other cell in the body.

FLATOW: And it reminds me of one of the things that I think I've gotten right over the last decade or so, is the understanding that we can make new nerve cells. We used to think they were...

Dr. KANDEL: Yes. In certain parts - we used to think - in part because of Ramoni Kahal. Even giants occasionally miss certain things. We thought that you're born with all the cells. They can die, but you don't get new ones. And now we know that are certain regions of the brain that have stem cell potential, and they continue to divide. In the olfactory part of the brain and also in the certain part of the hippocampus, a memory storage site, there are small residues of new cells being born.

FLATOW: And we can train other parts of the brain to take over.

Dr. KANDEL: Well, that's a different point...

FLATOW: Yeah.

Dr. KANDEL: ...even perhaps more powerful. The plasticity of the brain, the fact that when one part is damaged, one can enhance the power of others to compensate is extraordinary. And this is being utilized very, very effectively in the treatment of stroke. When I was a medical student, we were taught not to interfere in the recovery of the stroke in the first few weeks. Now, one actively engages people with a stroke to get them going in rehabilitation very, very early.

FLATOW: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News. I'm Ira Flatow, talking with Dr. Eric Kandel. What's the headline going to be now, Dr. Kandel? I'm going to put your crystal ball out. Five years, two years, whatever, down the road, what big headline are we going to be seeing soon?

Dr. KANDEL: Well, I think there are many headlines that need to come. I think we're in a crisis in terms of psychiatric disorders.

FLATOW: Really?

Dr. KANDEL: Yes. A serious crisis.

FLATOW: In what way? What do you mean?

Dr. KANDEL: When I was a resident in 1960, drugs for schizophrenia were first coming along. There's reason to believe that there's been some, but very modest improvement in the treatment of schizophrenia since 1960. Half a century. In depression - you saw the New York Times the other day - there are selective serotonin uptake inhibitors. Number one, there's been no improvement in them for almost 30 years.

Number two, they only work in certain specific cases of depression. So major mental illness, which is an enormous debilitating range of illnesses, do not have optimal treatment available for them. Why is that so? Well, we don't know where in the brain these diseases occur. We don't know the anatomical basis of that. Number one.

Number two. We know that these are disorders that have a major genetic component. We have, by and large, not identified most of the genes important for that. So the biological understanding, which is the key to treatment of major mental illnesses, has been unbelievably slow. And I foresee terrific effort, increased funding, increased research effort, increased recruitment of scientific personnel into these areas.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And is the U.S. going to be the leader in this?

Dr. KANDEL: I would hope so. To be honest with you, I think these are international problems.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. KANDEL: And if the problem were solved next year in China, I would not cry. I'm very proud of the country, and I hope we continue to contribute in important ways. But I think this is an international effort. Wherever the leads come from, we should all jump on it and take advantage of it.

FLATOW: And there's sufficient funding to get us to the next...

Dr. KANDEL: No.

FLATOW: No.

Dr. KANDEL: Nowhere near.

FLATOW: You know, I'm cynical about asking a scientist about money, because they always say: I need more money.

Dr. KANDEL: I don't do clinical trials. This is not something...

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. KANDEL: ...that involves me. Stepping back...

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. KANDEL: ...we clearly see that we don't have the funds necessary to move this. In fact, science in general doesn't get the amount of money that it needs in order to carry forward.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And so if there were one place to invest that funding, it would be where? Where (unintelligible)?

Dr. KANDEL: Well, I'm not sure I'm positioned to say in all of the health sciences, what's the most important area. But certainly, we've put a lot of support into public health measures, and they've been remarkable. I mean, the decrease of incidence of heart disease, hypertension has been spectacular. I think most people would agree psychiatric illness is a major need area.

FLATOW: And in your lab, what are we going to see next coming out of there?

Dr. KANDEL: Well, I'm interested in how memory is perpetuated, how you remember something for the rest of your life. And Cal Sikse(ph), when he was in my lab, and I found a new mechanism for the perpetuation of memory storage, which is a self-perpetuation protein. And we're looking into that, in a variety of contexts.

FLATOW: And you have a company that's going to try to increase memory?

Dr. KANDEL: We had a company that was involved in developing drugs for age-related memory loss. That's been bought by Hoffman-La Roche. That was called Memory Pharmaceuticals.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And so you think there could be a pill, or that's what they would say. They...

Dr. KANDEL: Yes. There are many companies who are working on pills, both for age-related memory loss and for Alzheimer's. And I'm hopeful that there will be progress in that area. There has been a lot of good basic science, particularly in Alzheimer's disease. And we should see progress.

FLATOW: And so you have an opening tonight? Are you going to go dress up in your tux? Or are you going to just...

Dr. KANDEL: I'm wearing my bar mitzvah suit right as we talk.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. KANDEL: For you, I wore one of my better bowties, Ira.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: It's a beauty.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Well, we wish you mazel tov on your film.

Dr. KANDEL: Thank you.

FLATOW: Congratulations. We hope for a great opening success. And come back -feel free to come back and talk to us anytime you want.

Dr. KANDEL: Ira, it's a pleasure to be here. Thank you.

FLATOW: Thank you very much. Eric Kandel, senior investigator with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, university professor at Columbia University, director of the Kavli Institute for Brain Science. And his film, "In Search of Memory," following his book, opens today in New York and hopefully headed to a city and a theater near you.

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