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Pioneering Neuroscientist Eric Kandel


His Story

After training as a psychiatrist and publishing a series of pioneering studies on the mammalian hippocampus, Dr. Kandel had the profound insight that a deep understanding of the cellular logic of learning and memory might best be obtained from a reductionist approach. Using the simple architecture of the marine snail Aplysia, Dr. Kandel studied the cellular and molecular mechanisms of three basic forms of learning: habituation, sensitization and classical conditioning. In these studies, which led to Dr. Kandel’s Nobel Prize, he found that defined behaviors can be accounted for by neural circuits made up of distinctive and identifiable neurons that are interconnected in invariant ways. Learning produces changes in behaviors not by altering the neural circuitry but by modulating the strength of specific synaptic connections.

Dr. Kandel then applied the tools of biochemistry and molecular biology to define the molecular bases of short-term and long-term memory. He first demonstrated that short-term memory requires modification of pre-existing proteins. Next, he identified the dialogue between synapses and genes that provide the molecular switch whereby short-term memory is converted to the long-term. He found that synaptic activity during experience leads to the expression of genes whose protein products then elicit the growth and stabilization of new synaptic connections. Thus, by using a reductionist multidisciplinary approach, Dr. Kandel showed us how the methods of psychology can be merged with those of molecular biology to provide exciting new advances in the understanding of basic cognitive processes. Psychological concepts, which had been inferred from purely behavioral studies could now be explained in terms of a unifying, cellular mechanism.

Dr. Kandel is known throughout the field as a brilliant teacher, author, and an inspiring and visionary leader. Eric’s commitment to the importance of communicating science to the public are reflected in his appearances on public television and in the many books he has written about science and the arts. His influence and broad vision are perhaps best exemplified by the textbook Principles of Neural Science, of which Dr. Kandel was the driving force through six editions over 40 plus years. Over the past decade, Dr. Kandel sought to merge his lifelong passion for the arts with a biological perspective. In his book The Age of Insight, Dr. Kandel explored Vienna at the dawn of the 20th century to trace ideas in art, science and medicine that have had an enduring influence to this day. 

In recent years, Dr. Kandel played a central role in the creation of the Zuckerman Institute. All of us who have had the good fortune to interact with Dr. Kandel as colleagues and friends realize how lucky we are to have experienced his generous spirit, wisdom, creativity and warmth. There is an artistic quality in Dr. Kandel, not only in life, but in science that is vaguely magical. This magical quality is evident in all aspects of Dr. Kandel’s life: in the passion with which he pursues science and art, as well as in his passion for family and the long and special partnership he shares with his wife, Denise Kandel, PhD. She brings her own intellectual vision and deeply human qualities and what emerges is a truly unique couple, in science and in life.

Dr. Kandel’s creativity and friendship have profoundly enhanced our world. We will miss his vital and vibrant presence, his creativity and wisdom, and, of course, his wonderful laughter. 


Columbia University Schaefer Gallery art installation honoring Dr. Eric Kandel

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