How True Superhero Eric Kandel Became the Father of Modern Neuroscience

Eric Kandel’s memories of one of the most traumatic events in human history led him to study the workings of the human mind, and in particular the way the brain forms and retains those memories. His methods were ridiculed by his contemporaries, but his discoveries led to him being known as “the father of modern neuroscience” and paved the way for decades of vital research into the human mind.

Indelible memories

Eric was born in Vienna in 1929, the second son of Herman and Charlotte, Jewish parents who had both emigrated from far-flung parts of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the start of the first World War, and met and married in Vienna in 1923. Herman ran a small toy store, and both his parents worked in the shop, while employing a full time housekeeper to take care of Eric and his older brother, Ludwig. This comfortable middle-class life was thrown into disarray following the annexation of Austria by Germany early in 1938. Eric later described his experience of the period, as a Jewish schoolboy: “The day after Hitler marched into Vienna, every one of my non-Jewish classmates – the entire class with the exception of one girl – stopped talking and interacting with me. In the park where I played I was taunted and roughed up. This viciousness toward Jews, of which my treatment was a mild example, culminated in the horrors of Kristallnacht, November 8, 1938.”

How True Superhero Eric Kandel Became the Father of Modern Neuroscience

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Eric Kandel’s memories of one of the most traumatic events in human history led him to study the workings of the human mind, and in particular the way the brain forms and retains those memories. His methods were ridiculed by his contemporaries, but his discoveries led to him being known as “the father of modern neuroscience” and paved the way for decades of vital research into the human mind.

Indelible memories

Eric was born in Vienna in 1929, the second son of Herman and Charlotte, Jewish parents who had both emigrated from far-flung parts of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the start of the first World War, and met and married in Vienna in 1923. Herman ran a small toy store, and both his parents worked in the shop, while employing a full time housekeeper to take care of Eric and his older brother, Ludwig. This comfortable middle-class life was thrown into disarray following the annexation of Austria by Germany early in 1938. Eric later described his experience of the period, as a Jewish schoolboy: “The day after Hitler marched into Vienna, every one of my non-Jewish classmates – the entire class with the exception of one girl – stopped talking and interacting with me. In the park where I played I was taunted and roughed up. This viciousness toward Jews, of which my treatment was a mild example, culminated in the horrors of Kristallnacht, November 8, 1938.”

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Eric would later describe how the events of Kristallnacht, as he and his family personally experienced them, would remain seared on his memory forever. The Kandels were woken in the middle of the night by banging on the door, and ordered to pack a small bag before being forced to leave their modest apartment and move into the home of an elderly, more affluent Jewish couple a few blocks away. Eric’s father was detained by the Nazi authorities, but he was fortunate, and was able to return to Vienna six months later thanks to his status as a veteran of the first World War. Soon after Herman’s return, Eric and Ludwig were sent to Brooklyn to live with their uncle; six months later their parents were able to follow them. 

Eric (left) and Ludwig in 1933.

A clothes shop built from toothbrushes

The Kandels threw themselves into their new life with relish. Herman got a job working in a toothbrush factory, and Eric would later describe how his father was reprimanded for working too hard, producing too many toothbrushes. That industrious approach soon paid off, as Herman was shortly able to purchase a small clothing store in Brooklyn. The family lived above the store, where Eric’s parents would work on mending clothes. Meanwhile Eric was thriving in the local high school, where he performed well enough to win a scholarship to Harvard. 

Eric did not immediately settle on an academic career in the sciences. His undergraduate major was in 19th century history and literature, with a particular focus on German writers and their attitudes towards the Nazi party. Eric was fascinated by the circumstances that enabled the rise of Hitler, but this fascination took a different turn as new frontiers in medicine were opening up. In his final year of college he became interested in the newly fashionable field of psychoanalysis, and aware of the developments taking place in the burgeoning field of genetics. This new, biological approach to understanding the brain fascinated Eric, who would later write that “It was then that I began to think of  memory in biological terms. How did the Viennese past leave its traces on the nerve cells of my brain?... How did terror sear the banging on the door of our apartment into the molecular and cellular fabric of my brain with such permanence that I can relive the experience in vivid visual and emotional detail more than half a century later?” Looking for answers, Eric applied to NYU Medical School in 1952. 

The father of modern neuroscience

Over the next two decades Eric began to uncover some of the answers he had set out to find. He began to study impulses in the brains of animals, which at the time was a contentious approach; most authorities in the fields of memory, on both the biological and psychiatric sides, believed that there was nothing to be learned about human memory from studying animal brains. In 1970, Eric and his team of researchers at the newly formed Division of Neurology and Behaviour at NYU were able to conclusively prove them wrong, thanks to their studies of Aplysia, more commonly known as sea slugs. Kandel chose Aplysia as a subject because its brains are extremely simple, a choice that deliberately went in the face of the skeptics who believed that such basic creatures had nothing in common with humans. Kandel’s team were able to prove otherwise, that by changing the slug’s environment they didn’t just demonstrate the animal’s ability to learn behaviors - observable changes in the way the slug utilized its gills - but also proved that chemical signals changed the structure of synapses in the animal’s brain. The team would go on to demonstrate that long-term and short-term memories are formed by different signals, and that this process also occurred in humans.

Eric (left) with Donald Frederickson in 1977

This discovery would be cited as the basis for the award of Eric’s Nobel prize, awarded in 2000, but his research did not stop here and Eric has continued to make new discoveries about memory throughout his later career, but it is unsurprising that his initial breakthrough has been so widely celebrated. It was a foundational moment in the field of neuroscience, and Eric is now widely described as “the father of modern neuroscience” thanks to his research. 

A return to Vienna

He has not rested on his laurels, however, and since winning the Nobel Eric has not only continued his research, but also leaned into his role as a prominent figure in the sciences. He published a hugely successful book, In Search of Memory, in 2006, which summarizes his career and the many fascinating questions still to be solved in modern neuroscience. 

A second book, The Age of Insight, followed in 2012, in part prompted by the fallout from his Nobel award 12 years earlier. Following the award Eric objected to attempts by the Austrian media and politicians to laud him as an “Austrian Nobel laureate“, to which he replied that it was “certainly not an Austrian Nobel, it was a Jewish-American Nobel.” He was subsequently called by Austria’s president, Thomas Klestil, enquiring what could be done to make amends. Eric responded by insisting that the Viennese street called Doktor-Karl-Lueger-Ring - named after a former anti-semitic Mayor of Vienna who was cited by Hitler in Mein Kampf - be renamed, and that a symposium be set up at the University of Vienna to examine Austria’s response to the Nazis. Eric’s final demand was that the Austrian Government set up scholarships for Jewish students and researchers, to bring back talent from the Jewish diaspora to Vienna. These demands - which were fully met by Klestil - are typical of Kandel’s approach, seeking to center the memory of the atrocities which forced him and his family from the city of his birth, while taking practical steps to remedy the damage caused. It’s an approach that he has also enabled for many other scientists through his groundbreaking research into memory, and they in turn have built on this True Superhero’s contributions to devise a huge range of remedies, with many more surely still to come.

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