The Search for Traces of Memory

Der Standard (06/04/03)

Instead of being honored as Nobel Prize winner, Eric Kandel expressed his wishes for a symposium to elucidate the expulsion of "scientists" from Austria in 1938.

Vienna - "I’m an American," said the neurobiologist and Nobel Prize winner for Medicine, Eric Kandel, after his lecture in the Jewish Museum during a conversation held in Hotel Regina. This was not far from his domicile in the Severingasse 8, from where he and his brother, along with his parents and grandparents, had to flee in 1939 to the U.S.

The author, born in 1929, had objected to being greeted as "Austrian Nobel Prize winner" by Federal President Thomas Klestil, after he had been awarded the Nobel Prize in 2000 for his research on the "Neurobiological Foundations of Learning and Memory Ability." Instead, Eric Kandel had asked that there be an attempt made to clarify the history of expulsion of "scientists" from Austria in 1938.

The current symposium can therefore be viewed as an educational debate on the exodus of science which still hurts Austrian research to this day - more than half of all professors in physics and medicine at the University of Vienna in 1938 were Jewish.

Eric Kandel is also the archetype for how science can flourish under favorable conditions, as in the laboratories of the USA: "During the fifties, there were hundreds of meetings and seminars in the National Health Laboratories (NIH)." Asked whether it had been the Austrian tendency to repress history which had motivated him to explore a topic which, as early as 1950, became a lifetime of research, namely the biology of memory, Kandel responded with wonderful scientific dryness: "That’s a very philosophical thought. At that time I needed no philosophy, no. I lived in a very favorable environment. And I learnt about the ‘experimental approach’ and searched for a system, a simple system, which could reveal the functions of learning. And it was the ocean snail Aplysia which provided this system."

The ocean snail’s nerve cells were so large that its responses to stimulation were easy to observe: " Many said at the time that was too simple. But it was a model which allowed to observe complex matters." It was much like what Kandel, a connoisseur of art, had observed in the paintings of the Expressionists such as Kirchner, Schiele, Kokoschka, or in the great abstract art of a Mark Rothko: no reductionism but rather concentration on structures.

In other words, no body-soul problem as argued in the philosophies of Locke via Kant to Popper? -"The neurologist, John Eccles, was the one interested in it. I am friends with philosophers such as John Searle. But my scientific interest lies in the biological foundations of Neuroscience."

Eric Kandel predicted that this science was going to be as significant for the 21st Century as Genetics was for the 20th century. And it had its beginnings in Vienna, he claimed: Sigmund Freud, namely, had studied at the beginning of his career the effects of synapses, which he called "contacts," but recognized "that at that time knowledge of chemistry was insufficient." Moreover, well-known Freudian notions such as "traces of memory" were originally thought of as a function of the body and in no way abstracted speculation.

Eric Kandel, who had studied literature, but had become acquainted in New York at the time with Ernst and Marianne Kris (both belonged to the circle of Freund followers), committed himself to this topic of traces of memory. Thus, he came to psychoanalysis and medicine, and later to the laboratory of the neurobiologist, Harry Grundfest, at Columbia University. Using a simple model, Eric Kandel searched for the architecture of behavior and how it could be changed: "The reaction of the aplysia became stronger when it was threatened. And it was able also to develop mechanisms to fight against it."

Eric Kandel, in the meantime, continues to look for such means to fight against fear and loss of memory in the laboratory established by his own firm, "Memorial Pharmaceuticals.' Even that sounds almost like an elixir for Austria or as motto for the symposium. The laboratory, consisting of some twenty researchers, are developing drugs against memory loss found in the aged ("not Alzheimer, rather simpler cases"). The animal used in the laboratory is the mouse: "We studied loss of memory in the mouse and developed drugs which dramatically reduced this loss. We can help the mice but we’re still not sure we can help people. We can only hope to."