Eric Kandel On Unusual Brains and What They Tell Us

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OXFORD, ENGLAND - MARCH 21: Professor Eric Kandel, Nobel Prize winning neuroscientist, on Day 1 of the FT Weekend Oxford Literary Festival on March 21, 2015 in Oxford, England. (Photo by David Levenson/Getty Images)

In August 2018, neuroscientist Eric Kandel released The Disordered Mind: What Unusual Brains Tells Us About Ourselves, and we’re here to review it.

Eric Kandel On The Disordered Mind

The Man Behind the Science

Eric Kandel is one of the world’s most renowned neuroscientists. The Columbia University professor revolutionized the field with his studies of the Giant Sea Slug, Aplysia, finding the biological components of how memory is stored. The Viennese-American, who escaped Hitler’s invasion in Vienna, was the recipient of the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine in 2000 for his advancements on how memories work.

Kandel is one of those one-of-a-kind scientists. He became interested in the mind when he discovered psychoanalysis while at Harvard. As a young medical student, Kandel wanted to explore the brain and learn more about many of Sigmund Freud’s ideas. Moreover, he wanted to know how people, like many of his neighbors and friends during the Nazi invasion in Vienna, are susceptible to showing their evil side and harming people they have known for life. Although he would eventually go with a more neurobiological approach, the Nobel laureate’s new book stays true to those interests and offers a unique look at mental disorders like schizophrenia, Parkinson’s disease, depression, and PTSD and how they can manifest themselves in the brain and in our lives.

The Disordered Mind

The book, titled The Disordered Mind: What Unusual Brains Tell Us About Ourselves, does an incredible job of describing well-known disorders of the mind, explaining their roots, their causes, and how humans are approaching such unusual activity in the brain. Kandel brilliantly blends his knowledge of neuroscience, psychiatry, psychology, biology, and even genetics to paint a broad picture of how mental disorders like autism, anxiety, severe stress disorder, and PTSD, among others, change people’s lives.

The book is beautifully divided, starting with basic knowledge of the brain and exploring each disorder’s uniqueness and impact. Maybe the best chapter of them all is when Erick Kandel explores dementia, specifically, Alzheimer’s disease. Kandel lays out the early signs of Alzheimer’s disease, which are an atrophied brain, the formation of amyloid plaques, and the notable neurofibrillary tangles. The gem of this chapter is Kandel explaining the effect of the hormone osteocalcin. This was done when Kandel and Gerald Karsently examined the effect of this bone hormone in mice:

“Interestingly, when we gave old mice osteocalcin, their performance on memory tasks such as novel object recognition—which had declined with age—improved. In fact, their memory matched that of young mice. Moreover, osteocalcin even improved the learning capabilities of young mice.”

The book’s rich description of this disorder doesn’t end there. Kandel dedicates a good part of the book to how some of these disorders may affect creativity. As both brain hemispheres inhibit each other—they block the action of the other—some disorders, like Schizophrenia, can damage brain structures and, in rare occasions, let the right hemisphere loose. The right hemisphere is involved with “putting ideas together” and “seeing new combinations,” meaning patients with left lesions in their brain might have a burst of creativity with their free right hemisphere.

Last Word on The Disordered Mind: What Unusual Brains Tell Us About Ourselves

In the last chapters of the book, Kandel doesn’t shy away from difficult and sometimes controversial topics, like gender identity and sexual differentiation in the brain and the mystery of consciousness. There’s no topic the Nobel laureate will deny, adding layers of knowledge in such topics where political ideologies and other fields of study have taken over.

Many books provide details on mental disorders, but they lack in their knowledge of the brain and its different processes. Kandel presents a well-balanced view in which the science is not watered down and brings forth a narrow view on the latest of these disruptions. Moreover, Kandel proposes the unification of neurology and psychiatry and the evolution of psychoanalysis for a promising future where these disorders can be understood and provide us with a better knowledge of ourselves.

For more about the brain, check out LWOS life: Science and Technology.

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