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Editor’s note: This extraordinary interview with neuroscientist Candace Pert, who died in 2013, takes us back to the discovery of the opiate receptor, which binds to the natural joy-inducing, pain-reducing molecules — the endorphins — in the body and the brain. The work Pert pioneered, today a cornerstone of neuroscience, showed that the mind-body connection is profoundly real.

Candace Pert on Molecules of Emotion

by Judith Hooper


Candace Pert
Photo illustration by Henry Bacon
Visitors wander through a labyrinth of olive-drab corridors until they find the office with the name CANDACE PERT and a child’s drawing signed VANESSA posted on the door. Next door, rats slumber or scratch in their cages, dreaming of the day they can escape electrodes, syringes, and imperious gloved hands. Here at the Biological Psychiatry Branch of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) in Bethesda, Maryland, the business is the mind: slices of cortex aglow with chemicals that, if you heed Candace Pert, contain all our joys and sorrows. In 1973, when Pert was a twenty-six-year-old pharmacology graduate student working under Solomon Snyder at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, she startled the neuroscience community with her discovery of the opiate receptor. A receptor is a site in the brain where molecules of a drug or naturally produced chemical fit like keys in a lock. The fact that the brain possesses receptors for morphine and heroin, Pert said, suggested that it must also produce its own version of these substances. And two years later, the Scottish scientists John Hughes and Hans Kosterlitz discovered our body’s natural opiates — the endorphins. A new era in neuroscience was born.

The discovery of the opiate receptor heaped instant renown on Pert and Snyder. Then, in 1978, Snyder, Hughes, and Kosterlitz received the Lasker Award, commonly considered a steppingstone to the Nobel Prize. Candace Pert did not. But she did soon find herself unwittingly famous, as the controversy over her exclusion from the award seeped out of the hushed chambers of dispassionate research into the streets of public opinion. The young graduate student’s name began reverberating even in the sacred editorial pages of Science. The opinion of many informed researchers was that Dr. Pert had been denied her due.

Today, still reluctant to talk about the Lasker Award controversy, Pert has only cordial words for her former mentor. The opiate receptor may have been a cause célèbre, but she’d rather discuss her current work on the Valium receptor, which she flippantly refers to as the Hoffman-La Roche receptor, for the mysterious target sites in the brain where angel dust works its black magic. Her photographs of intricate brain-receptor patterns, illuminated like so many inner galaxies, remind us of how little is known about the workings of the human mind. From where do our thoughts arise? How does the brain regulate behavior? Do our neurochemicals, like seasonings in a biological soup, make us sad or happy, psychotic or sane? Pert intends to find out. “I’m tinkering around inside the human computer,” she has said. “People are just very complicated electronic mechanisms, and our emotions of love, hate, anger, and fear are wired into our brains.”

A graduate of Bryn Mawr College, with a Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins, Pert went on to work at the NIMH right next door to her first husband, Agu Pert, a behavioral psychologist. “I’m his biochemistry consultant, and he’s my psychology consultant,” she said at the time.

Judith Hooper interviewed Candace Pert in 1981, both at her lab and at her Bethesda home.

Pert later co-founded a company, Rapid Pharmaceuticals, with her second husband, Michael Ruff, to develop a novel peptide treatments for pain, multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s, and AIDS; she also wrote an influential book, Molecules of Emotion, about the deep connection between mind and body. She died of cardiac arrest in 2013.

(For more information on Candace Pert’s life and work, visit http://candacepert.com.)

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This article copyright © 1981 by Judith Hooper. Used by permission. Photo illustration copyright © 2016 by Henry Bacon. Used by permission. All rights reserved.



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