The Men with Three Brains

by Beth Greenberg, MA
When Jenna, a market researcher from suburban Chicago, heard the announcement that this year's "Nobel Prize in Medicine" was won for major advances in the study of brain chemistry, she was mildly interested but didn't pay much attention.

What Jenna didn't realize is that the winners' research had already affected her life, and would continue to do so in the future. Jenna's brother was diagnosed with schizophrenia 20 years ago, and it's only because of effective antipsychotic drugs that he is able to hold a part-time job and live in an independent setting. Research into the biochemistry of the brain made these medications possible. In addition, brain research has contributed to treatment for Alzheimer's disease, the condition that slowly robbed Jenna's grandmother of her memory five years ago, and Parkinson's disease, a debilitating illness afflicting Katherine Hepburn, her favorite actress.

When many people think of "brain research," images of Frankenstein, lobotomies, or mental telepathy come frighteningly or amusingly to mind. And yet, brain research has emerged from the shadows to occupy a central role in the search for medical breakthroughs. Brain researchers are currently investigating a variety of health concerns – from depression to learning disabilities, from trauma treatment to stress management. The focus of this year's Nobel Prize-winning research will open the doors to greater understanding of many physical and psychiatric disabilities and the possibilities for their treatment.

And the Winners Are…

This year's Prize highlights science's continuing quest to understand how the brain operates on its most basic molecular level. It underscores the importance of research into how the brain's hundred billion nerve cells affect our physical health and emotional well-being.

The Nobel Prize in Medicine was awarded on October 9, 2000 to Dr. Eric R. Kandel of Columbia University, Dr. Arvid Carlsson of the University of Gothenberg in Sweden, and Dr. Paul Greengard of Rockefeller University. These three men have tirelessly dedicated their careers to approaching brain research from different angles, yet the results of their combined efforts have had, and will continue to have, significant influence for years to come.

Dr. Kandel, who initially intended to become a psychoanalyst, changed his focus to the research and biology of memory during his years in medical school. His work has demonstrated differences between the biology of short-term or "working" memory (remembering from seconds to minutes and involving small capacity, such as the specials on a restaurant menu) and the biology of long-term memory (up to years and involving large capacity, such as the dates of significant Civil War battles learned in the sixth grade).

Our memories are recorded by "firings" of our synapses, which are part of the nervous system. According to Dr. Kandel's research, while short-term/working memory requires only an adjustment of our synapses, long-term memory requires that new synapses be created. He has been able to discover many biochemical elements involved in the formation of memories, information that will influence the study of memory, neuroscience, psychiatry, and health for years to come.

The work of Dr. Carlsson and Dr. Greengard focuses on different aspects of dopamine, a chemical in the portion of the brain that controls movement. Dr. Carlsson's initial discovery of dopamine was fundamental to finding the cause of Parkinson's disease, an emotionally and physically debilitating illness. As a result of Dr. Carlsson's pioneering work in identifying dopamine depletion as a cause of Parkinson's, many effective treatments for that illness could be developed. In parallel research, Dr. Greengard discovered how dopamine acts on the nervous system.

An additional field of research for Dr. Carlsson was determining how antipsychotic drugs work. Although his research was considered to be somewhat "on the fringe" during the 1960s, Dr. Carlsson's assumptions were on the mark and have made it possible for pharmaceutical companies to develop new drugs for treating schizophrenia, depression, and other psychiatric conditions.

Bright Minds, Brighter Future

by giving the "nod" to brain research, the Nobel Assembly shines a spotlight on one of the hottest areas in medical research today. While the mentally ill and neurologically impaired have historically been mistreated by society – sent to hospitals or hidden away in asylums or attics – doctors and members of the general public alike have come to recognize that these disorders are not the "fault" of those afflicted; rather, they are frequently rooted in the body's biochemistry. Neurological diseases that include a significant emotional component, like Parkinson's and Alzheimer's, are also now seen as treatable, and may one day be curable.

We are fortunate to live in a time when scientific breakthroughs occur frequently and the brain, in all its complexity and fragility, is better understood. So we can say good by e to images of Frankenstein when considering the topic of brain research, and usher in a new era in the treatment of old illnesses.

Date published: 10/13/00
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 30 Apr 2016
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