Saturday, April 7, 2007

Molecules of Emotion

By Candace Pert
ISBN 0-684-83187-2

Reviewed by Larry D.

In 1972, while still a graduate student, Candace Pert discovered the opiate receptor, a large molecule on the surface of brain cells which is activated by morphine, heroin, or other opiates. The finding was a bombshell to the burgeoning science of the brain, and led to a race for other exciting discoveries which is still continuing. Candace Pert has been right in the thick of this race, and in this book she relates the thrill of the chase as only an insider could. She does an admirable job of explaining the science in terms that can be understood by a layman, while showing the human side of cutting-edge science. As a young upstart at the National Institutes of Health who had already accrued more fame than most of her superiors in the old-boys' network, she quickly learned that science is brutal game, and after battling for nine exhilarating years with many scientific triumphs to her credit, she found herself in scientific exile when she insisted on challenging old paradigms and refused to honor the rigid turf boundaries which see science of the body and science of the mind as separate entities.

Her discovery of the opiate receptor led to finding a scientific bridge between these two worlds, protein molecules called peptides, the molecules of emotion. As neuroscientists discovered more and more peptide molecules, along with their receptor sites in the emotional and other centers of the brain, medical researchers were discovering that these same molecules were also acting as messengers in other parts of the body; the gut, the autonomic nervous system, and the cells of the immune system. As she moved more and more into the world of alternative medicine, Pert's findings provided an important legitimacy to the longstanding belief that the body and mind are one. Emotions are both cause and effect, in both body and mind, and the messengers of the marvelous two-way conversation between body and mind are tiny strands of protein, the peptides.

I think this book is a good read for just about everybody. Some will be absorbed by the details of the scientific discoveries, others by the human drama of a brave feminist tackling the male establishment, and still others by her advocacy of alternative models of health. Well written and engaging, it is a hard book to put down.

My biggest disappointment was that she said so little about addictions. I learned a lot about cancer as she related her desperate search to understand the role of peptides in the spread of cancer as her father was dying of lung cancer. I learned things about AIDS as she explained how peptide receptors might offer the key to stopping the virus from spreading throughout the body. But despite the obvious connections to addictions, those problems never seemed to draw her attention. She did relate how she experienced a rush as a hypnotist friend had her visualize her pituitary gland releasing its endorphins. She shared this experience with a group of incarcerated women heroin addicts, suggesting that they ought to pursue it, but then with a quick mention that there were no scientific studies to support this idea, she quickly dropped the subject and returned to other stories. I can only hope that other researchers will follow up on some of the many implications of her ideas for our understanding and treatment of addictions.

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