Nobel Laureate Eric Kandel, MD gives Vanderbilt Flexner Discovery lecture
In its attempts to understand learning and memory, modern neuroscience research uses a variety of techniques. New tools such as optogenetics, chemogenetics, CLARITY, TRIO, etc., give unprecedented insight into the circuits, cell types, and physiologic changes governing behavior. Implicit in this work is the idea that alterations in the strength of connections between neurons underlie learning and memory. This idea was developed in part by Dr. Eric Kandel through his work with the sea slug, Aplysia, which won him the 2000 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. I was fortunate to hear Dr. Kandel speak three times over the course of a month: at lecture during the APSA/AAP/ASCI conference in Chicago, the Flexner Discovery Lecture at Vanderbilt, and at a brunch gathering.
Even at 87 years of age, Dr. Kandel had a spring to his step and youthful excitement for ideas. Donning his trademark bow tie, he began with his Discovery Lecture with an abbreviated history of memory. In describing the historic findings of Penfield, Scoville, and Milner, he introduced the hippocampus as a brain region important for memory. With this background information, he set the stage for the remainder of his talk on age-related memory loss. Specifically, he compared Alzheimer’s Disease (AD) to “benign-senescent forgetfulness” (BSF). AD has an onset age of 65-75 years, is characterized by rapid decline in cognition, and has a primary locus in the entorrhinal cortex. BSF begins in the 40s with a slow/linear decline in cognition, and is restricted to the dentate gyrus. To bring a more translational bend to these observations, he discussed two promising molecules now studied by his lab. The more exciting of these was the hormone osteocalcin. Secreted by the bone, its levels decline with age and increase with weight-bearing exercise. Further, Dr. Kandel showed mouse data suggesting it crosses the blood-brain barrier and improves episodic memory. The implication is that it may help combat age-related memory loss and adds to the growing body of work highlighting the benefits of physical activity throughout life.
An informal brunch the next day had Dr. Kandel fielding questions from 18 star-struck graduate students. Though the general advice given wasn’t particularly new or insightful (“work hard and stay focused”), it was interesting to hear him talk about career details that didn’t make it into his formal lecture. I was surprised to hear him attribute much of his scientific success to luck. Dr. Kandel also talked about collaborations with his wife, an epidemiologist, and some humorous tensions that arose. I also learned that his wife convinced him to refuse offers for chair-positions, as administrative burdens shift focus away from the lab. From my perspective, this was a logical yet courageous career decision that ultimately worked for the better. Though Dr. Kandel may claim luck with how things turned out, his recognition and pursuit of promising leads was anything but. The lucky ones were us graduate students spending time with a legendary investigator.