The Loom

Crayfish Psychoanalysis

It’s always great to hear senior scientists talk about the bad old days, when one computer could fill an entire room and no one could say what genes were made of. Eric Kandel of Columbia has been studying memory since the 1950s, and won the Nobel Prize in 2000 for his work. These days he’s observing genes switching on and off at the junctions between neurons. But when he started out, he had to content himself with sticking electrodes into crayfish (chosen for their fat neurons). To observe their neurons, scientists would hook up the electrodes to amplifiers and loudspeakers, and the crackle of nerves would fill the room. With hindsight, we can cluck at the primitiveness of it all. But for Kandel, it was a new world. He had wanted to find Freud’s ego and the rest in the brain, and quickly discovered that it was a futile task. But being able to hear a crayfish’s neurons was, to him, the ultimate psychoanalysis.

For more on Kandel, you can read my new profile. The article is in the New York Academy of Science’s webzine (as well as the hard-copy version). They’ve also got a link to a recent lecture Kandel gave at NYAS that was the spur for the article.

Comments

  1. #1 Henry
    May 5, 2006

    These days he’s observing genes switching on and off at the junctions between neurons. But when he started out, he had to content himself with sticking electrodes into crayfish (chosen for their fat neurons). To observe their neurons, scientists would hook up the electrodes to amplifiers and loudspeakers, and the crackle of nerves would fill the room. With hindsight, we can cluck at the primitiveness of it all.

    Nobody who has ever actually performed experiments like those above could describe it as ‘primitive’; it’s far more difficult than just getting spots to show up on your microarray.

    Genes are great, but they aren’t the end-all-be-all that so many molecular-oriented people seem to make them out to be. No understanding of genes will ever ellucidate the temporal pattern of a neural or muscular response.

    Different techniques are used for different experiments to answer different questions. To dismiss electrical recordings of nerves or muscles as ‘primitive’ is to fall victim to merely idolozing the new and flashy, regardless of its limitations.

    But hey, the more people go into molecular, the fewer people there’ll be to compete with me for faculty positions in organismal biology and physiology in 12 years.

  2. #2 Christopher Mims
    May 8, 2006

    I also must take exception to crayfish neuroscience being “primitive.” I spent two years of my life working on just this model system, and Henry (above) is right – it’s very tricky, and provides researchers with a way to ask – and answer – questions that cannot be answered with genes and behavioral observation alone.

    Between the genotype and the phenotype lies the mechanics of the organism itself – and insights from this realm inform everything from our understanding of basic processes in the neuron (what Kandel won a Nobel Prize for) to the realization that adding noise to a sensory system can sometimes increase its ability to pick up a signal. Too often in science the sexiness of a new technique trumps its actual utility – which isn’t to say that germ-line manipulations aren’t incredibly powerful – but rather that some older techniques are in their own way equally so.

  3. #3 Carl Zimmer
    May 8, 2006

    Henry and Chris–

    I appreciate your points–but I think you’re reading something into my post that isn’t there. I’m not saying that studies on organisms are primitive and studies on genes are advanced. I’m just contrasting one example of old science–listening to neurons on a loudspeaker–to an example of new science–measuring gene expression in synapses. I’m sure that when you record activity in neurons, you use a computer to store and analyze that information. And I’m sure your computer doesn’t fill a room.

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