Review of ‘Molecules of Emotion’

Molecules of Emotion
Candace B. Pert (Scribner)

Candace Pert is a brilliant molecular biologist who was a key figure in the discovery of the endorphin molecule, the body's natural form of morphine. She is now widely regarded as the mother of a new field of science known as psychoneuroimmunology (Smithsonian, June 1989). Her research into brain biochemistry at the National Institute of Mental Health contributed to a radically new understanding of mind and body. In the 17th century, the philosopher René Descartes split mind and body into two spheres, with the body belonging to science and the mind left to metaphysics. Now Pert and her peers are rejoining what Descartes put asunder, by looking deeply into the molecular level of life.

In Molecules of Emotion, Pert offers a clear and often riveting account of her research on the frontier of a new kind of science. She also writes as an insider caught up in the politics of science, offering a rare glimpse of the ruthless competition for prizes and money that sometimes obscures the pursuit of truth. And, throwing aside the caution that is customary among scientists, she applies the new facts of psychoneuroimmunology to everyday life, discussing everything from drugs and disease to dreams and the molecular biology of hugs.

There are enough new facts, metaphors and speculations in this book to astonish (and sometimes raise the hackles of) many readers, just as Pert's research has often been met with initial disbelief. The field of psychoneuroimmunology, although based on exacting research, has had a hard birth. Its core idea is that the surfaces of cells are lined with many specific "receptors" to which only specific molecules can attach themselves. These molecules, in turn, are messengers through which the body and mind, as well as our neurons, glands and immune cells, are all constantly sharing information.

The work of Pert and her colleagues showed that a variety of proteins known as peptides (including endorphins) were among the body's key "information substances" - and each of them could affect our mind, our emotions, our immune system, our digestion and other bodily functions simultaneously. For scientists and doctors trained to focus on one system in isolation from the others - a neuroscientist doesn't study white blood cells, for example - this came as a shock. Their first reaction was to defend their turf, and also to deny the new evidence.

When Jesse Roth, clinical director at the National Institutes of Health, discovered in the 1980s that insulin (which was supposed to be produced only in the pancreas) was also made in the brain, as well as in one-celled organisms outside the human body, his papers were at first rejected by every reputable scientific journal. A reviewer sent back the comment: "This is preposterous, you must not be washing your test tubes well enough." When Ed Blalock at the University of Texas showed that immune cells were secreting endorphins (which Pert had discovered in the brain), he met the same kind of response. When his work was confirmed, the leading journal Nature warned scientists to beware of "radical psychoimmunologists" who would use Blalock's work to suggest that body and mind were in communication. Thereafter, Pert and her colleagues proudly called themselves radical psychoimmunologists.

Pert's own career has often been as controversial as the new science she's helped to create, and she writes of this with candor. She discovered endorphins as a graduate student, according to her account, only by secretly pursuing an experiment her professor had ordered her to drop. When he was later given the prestigious Lasker Award for work she had contributed to mightily, Pert was left out of the prize. She refused to keep quiet about it. The ensuing scandal made her something of a pariah to the establishment.

More recently, Pert and her husband, immunologist Michael Ruff, have devoted years of research to a potentially nontoxic cure for AIDS based on psychoneuroimmunology. They synthesized a peptide that would mimic the part of the virus that attaches to cell receptors and thus block the virus from entering a cell, instead of using toxic conventional drugs to destroy it. But their work has been dismissed, like other early advances in psychoneuroimmunology. It has only lately begun to gain interest and garner some backing among mainstream AIDS researchers.

At its best, Molecules of Emotion is a lucid explanation of new research on the way peptides work to connect all aspects of body and mind in a network of shared information. To cite only a single example, Pert explains: "For decades, most people thought of the brain and its extension the central nervous system as an electrical communication system . . . resembling a telephone system with trillions of miles of intricately crisscrossing wires." But new research techniques for studying peptides and receptors show that only 2 percent of neuronal communications are electrical, across a synapse. In fact, she writes, "the brain is a bag of hormones." And those hormones affect not only the brain, but every aspect of body and mind; many memories are stored throughout the body, as changes in the structure of receptors at the cellular level. "The body," Pert concludes, "is the unconscious mind!"

The central theme of Pert's book is that the peptides that flood our bodies are, in fact, the molecules of emotion. Emotions, largely ignored within the traditional confines of science and medicine, are actually the key to understanding psychoimmunology's emerging picture of how body and mind affect each other. For example, it's through the emotion-modulating peptides that an embarrassing thought can cause blood vessels to dilate and turn a face beet red. In the same way, the molecules of emotion can mobilize immune cells to destroy an incipient tumor. Techniques like meditation or visualization may also act as forces to set those molecules in action.

Pert's mission, as she describes it, is to bridge the gap that exists between the laboratory and the layman. "I try," she writes, "to make available and interpret the most up-to-date knowledge that I and my fellow scientists are discovering, information that is practical, that can change people's lives. In the process, I virtually cross into another dimension, where the leading edge of biomolecular medicine becomes accessible to anyone who wants to hear it."

Much of what Pert has to say is solidly grounded in new research, but she's on shakier ground in her occasional embrace of pop psychology and mysticism. Now a research professor at Georgetown University, she is as apt to speak at a conference of New Age gurus as at a gathering of molecular biologists. She is trying to open a dialogue between the mind of science and the body of beliefs many people are turning to for alternative healing. Whether these efforts represent critical lapses or welcome leaps of faith must be left to the perspective of each reader.

Paul Trachtman, who resides in New Mexico, is a regular contributor to Smithsonian. His most recent article, in the May 1998 issue, was a profile of the legendary horse trainer Buck Brannaman.

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