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Molecules of Emotion: Why You Feel the Way You Feel

Scribner: 1997. Pp.368 $25

In 1970 Candace Pert was admitted to Johns Hopkins University as a graduate student in pharmacology, and soon began doctoral research in the laboratory of Solomon Snyder. By autumn 1972 she had helped to develop the first practical binding assay for opiate receptors in brain homogenates, and this became the basis for studying the interaction of these receptors with drugs and natural ligands.

Three years later her work with Snyder had earned her an independent position at the “Palace” (her name for the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland), where she remained until 1987, publishing more than 200 scientific papers, many of which were very widely cited.

In 1978 Pert faced a great personal crisis when she learned that Snyder would receive the Lasker Award for work on opiate receptors, along with John Hughes and Hans Kosterlitz, who had determined the structures of two endogenous opiate peptides, the enkephalins. Believing she should have been included among the winners, Pert made a formal protest that became public and was recounted in many places, including Robert Kanigel's Apprentice to Genius (1986) and Jeff Goldberg's Anatomy of a Scientific Discovery (1988). Now, in Molecules of Emotion, Pert retells the story from her point of view, and lets us know what she has been doing since then.

Despite its subtitle, this book is essentially a memoir. Interspersed throughout the first half are some discussions about neuro-peptides (Pert's “molecules of emotion”), though even the endogenous opiate peptides are considered in only a cursory way, and there is no mention of a multitude of discoveries about the structure and biology of opiate receptors that followed from Pert's seminal work.

Molecules of Emotion is mostly about Pert's life in science, which she often discusses with startling candour. She recounts, for example, how, late in 1975, she and a collaborator betrayed a confidence by obtaining the then unpublished structure of enkephalin “from a secret source”, made the synthetic peptide, and showed that it had an analgesic effect when injected in the brain, aiming “to get it printed as close on the heels of Hughes's paper as possible”. With remarkable openness she traces her hunt for a treatment for AIDS to a voice she heard in 1985 “echoing inside my own head! It was a strong male voice that commanded: ‘You should do this!’ ”.

Following “the direction [that] had been dictated by a voice in my head while I stood at a podium in Maui”, Pert enlisted others to help her to design peptides that might block the attachment of an HIV envelope protein to a receptor on T cells using a receptor-binding assay.

She quickly found a synthetic peptide — peptide T (for threonine) — that seemed to work. It so interested the “Second Biggest Drug Company on the Planet” that its representatives persuaded her to give up her tenured position at the National Institutes of Health for a new laboratory they built for her, called “Peptide Design”. But in little more than a year their support for this laboratory was terminated, and “Peptide Design became Peptide Demise”.

Devastated by this turn of events, and disheartened by the hostility with which her work on peptide T was received by others studying HIV, Pert decided to withdraw from the intensely competitive arena of science, and to devote herself to the “new modalities of personal healing”. She was soon “earning a reputation⃛ as a ‘bodymind’ scientist”, and the warm welcome she received when she spoke at the 1991 meeting of the American Association of Holistic Medicine made her “feel totally at home with the new-paradigm crowd”.

Towards the end of the book she offers opinions and advice based on what she has learned about holistic medicine, in a section called “Lifestyles of the Healthy, Whole and Conscious: an Eight-Part Program”. There is also an appendix: “Prevention-Oriented Tips for Healthful, Blissful Living”.

This is not a run-of-the-mill autobiography of a scientist. As Pert says at the outset: “Perhaps my journey, intellectual as well as spiritual, can help other people on their paths”. Molecules of Emotion can certainly serve that purpose, but the lessons drawn from it by many readers may be rather different from those drawn by Pert herself.

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