Eric Kandel is one of the most influential and prolific neuroscientists and intellectuals of the last century. He was awarded the 2000 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for research on how memories are stored in the brain.
Kandel studied the nervous system of the sea slug, Aplysia — and later of mice — subjecting them to both weak and strong forms of stimuli. The weaker stimulus led to a form of short-term memory, while the stronger stimulus resulted in long-term memory accompanied, importantly, by a change in protein synthesis.
“It was astonishing!” Kandel said of his findings in an interview with The New York Times. “You could double the number of synaptic connections in a very simple neurocircuit as a result of experience and learning. The reason for that was that long-term memory alters the expression of genes in nerve cells, which is the cause of the growth of new synaptic connections. When you see that at the cellular level, you realize that the brain can change because of experience. It gives you a different feeling about how nature and nurture interact. They are not separate processes.”
Kandel’s research laid the groundwork for understanding more complex memory functions, and his own research has expanded to include animal models of memory disorders, mental illness, and drug abuse.
Beyond his work in the lab, Kandel is a public intellectual with broad interests. He published a memoir and intellectual history of brain science, In Search of Memory: The Emergence of a New Science of Mind, as well as two books about the intersection of art and science: The Age of Insight: The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind, and Brain, from Vienna 1900 to the Present, and Reductionism in Art and Brain Science: Bridging the Two Cultures.
Kandel is the director of the Kavli Institute for Brain Science at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and the founding director of the Center for Neurobiology and Behavior at Columbia University.