Seeing red among the white coats

Molecules of Emotion
July 24, 1998

This is a riveting combination of autobiography, science and science politics. The story starts with Candace Pert as a young doctoral student in Solomon Snyder's lab at Johns Hopkins University Medical School in the early 1970s. Snyder's lab was at the forefront of the race for the identification of neurotransmitters. When Pert arrived she was given a standard problem, using a standard technique. A seminar on receptors and her own experience of the effects of morphine after a horse-riding accident, prompted her decision to look for the morphine receptor. Snyder reluctantly gave her permission to change projects. After a series of failures, just as Pert had thought of the critical experiment, she was summoned by Snyder, who wanted quick results, and ordered her to shut down the project. Pert went behind his back and secretly, in the weekend, carried out her experiment. It worked. When she presented the results to Snyder, his comment was: "Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!'' But she was given every facility to pursue what had become a very exciting venture. Snyder wrote up the research for the journal Science, including Pert as first author.

Running parallel with the account of the research on the opiate receptor is a tale of science politics - the intrigue, the competition and the "dirty tricks" used in the race for priority. Pert is very conscious that this world is controlled and dominated by men. Snyder referred to her as "my little girl" at the same time as he began to suspect her as a potential competitor.

In 1975 Pert became staff fellow at the National Institute of Mental Health. Before leaving Johns Hopkins, Snyder made her promise that she would not continue to work on what was her opiate receptor. In 1978 she had a phone call from Snyder, starting "Hello, my little baby girl'', in which he asked her to be one of his invited guests at the ceremony at which he was to share the Lasker prize, regarded as the American Nobel prize, for the work on the opiate receptor. Pert's role was ignored. Her anger received considerable publicity. When later she refused the request of Nobel laureate Julius Axelrod, Snyder's mentor, to sign Snyder's nomination for the Nobel prize, she was dealt the cruel punishment of banishment from her scientific family. Senior male scientists shunned her and she was blackballed from important meetings.

At NIMH Pert extended her work to a number of other peptides and embarked on the problem that is the third theme running through the book: the biochemical basis of emotion. Her theory, that peptides are the "emotion-carrying molecules", is based partly on the rise of endorphins during human orgasm and partly on the high density of peptide receptors in brain areas generally regarded as controlling emotions. The discovery that both peptides and their receptors are found throughout the tissues of the body, notably the immune system, prompted her concept of the "bodymind".

The bodymind is the result of the two-way communication between brain and body, mediated by peptides. Brain is taken as synonymous with mind and the body is the unconscious mind. Pert suggests that emotional states are produced by neuropeptide ligands. It is perhaps no coincidence that the strong emotions associated with Pert's early work on the opiate receptor led to her theory of the central role of peptides in emotion.

Her theory further conflicts with the scientific establishment and a growing interest in psychosomatic illnesses progressively led Pert towards various forms of alternative medicine. She regarded these as scientifically persuasive and found the atmosphere and interpersonal relations of this discipline more congenial than the competitive and ruthless environment she had experienced in the world of conventional science.

More recently, Pert, with her husband, Michael Ruff, has been looking to peptides as a source for cures for cancer and Aids.

The book is gripping from beginning to end and illuminates many aspects of contemporary science. There is a vivid account of the all-absorbing excitement of research at the beginning of one's career as a graduate student.

Finally, there is the holistic, intuitive rather than critically rational approach of alternative medicine, whose practitioners include a high proportion of women. Although many of these features are now universal, the world described in this book is essentially American.

Marianne Fillenz is senior research fellow, St Anne's College, Oxford.

Molecules of Emotion

Author - Candace B. Pert
ISBN - 0 684 83187 2
Publisher - Simon & Schuster
Price - £17.99
Pages - 368

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