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October 21, 2009

Maybe It's the Bowtie

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CREDIT: Wikimedia Commons

by Greg Miller

Eric Kandel is a hero for many neuroscientists. He wrote the field's most widely used textbook, won a Nobel Prize for his work on memory, and by all accounts is a genuinely nice guy. So it wasn't surprising that thousands of people packed into the convention center's biggest hall last night to hear his talk.

A few weeks shy of his 80th birthday, Kandel could be excused for giving the kind of talk that's typical in these presidential lectures, in which a Very Distinguished Person in the field rehashes the glory days, reminisces about how far the field has come, and throws in a good story or two about former grad students who've gone on to become Distinguished Persons in their own right. Instead, Kandel spent the better part of an hourlong lecture talking about new and largely unpublished data, and interesting stuff at that.

In a 2003 Cell paper, Kandel and colleagues reported that a protein with prionlike properties plays a role in long-term memory in the sea slug Aplysia. Last night, he described work that extends these findings to mice and bolsters the argument that self-propagating aggregates of these proteins may be involved in "tagging" specific synapses to be strengthened when a long-term memory is created.

Kandel concluded by suggesting that such "functional prions" may have a wide variety of roles in the brain--in wiring neural circuits during development, perhaps, or in addiction. And he outlined his group's plans for nailing down their role in long-term memory. All the while he seemed to be enjoying himself, dapper as always in his trademark bowtie.