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Health, psychology & science stories


Candace Pert - neuroscientist, feminist, new ager

18 January 2004

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age

“When stored or blocked emotions are released through touch or other physical methods,” says Candace Pert, “there is a clearing of our internal pathways, which we experience as energy. Healers from various Eastern and alternative modalities can literally see the mind in the body, where it does indeed exist, and are adept at techniques that can get it unstuck if necessary.”

These words come not from some New Age flake, but from a woman whose CV contains many of the most exciting developments in brain science of the past three decades.

As a mere graduate student, in 1972 Candace Pert discovered the brain’s opiate receptor - the cellular site where the body’s painkillers and "bliss-makers", the endorphins - bond with cells to weave their magic.

Pert’s discovery led to a revolution in neuroscience, helping open the door to the “information-based” model of the brain which is now replacing the old “structuralist” model.

But the discovery had nearly been aborted, when Pert’s impatient boss at Johns Hopkins University Medical School ordered the project closed. So Pert breached regulations by surreptitiously ordering in the materials she needed, hiding her paperwork, and planning to do the key experiment in secret on a Friday night.

On the night, her babysitter fell through. Undeterred, she collected her five-year-old from pre-school, smuggled him past guards into the lab, and sat him on a bench opening vials for her. After setting up the experiment, she set the counter on her filtration machine and took her son home to bed.

The data she collected the following Monday morning told her she had found the opiate receptor, and she became the first person to be a world-famous neuroscientist before receiving her Ph.D.

Subsequently, three men received the Lasker - America’s highest scientific award - for opiate receptor and endorphin research. One of them was the boss who had ordered her to abandon her research.

Unlike Sabina Spielrein (the unknown genius who provided Carl Jung with some of his central ideas), and Rosalind Franklin (from whom Crick and Watson pinched crucial data in their quest for DNA, and who was forgotten amid the glory of their Nobel), Candace Pert failed to melt away into the scenery like a lady.

Indeed her letter to Science magazine ignited a controversy which sorely embarrassed the scientific old boy network. She’s been at odds with “the old paradigm” ever since.

“The old paradigm”, in Pert’s terms, is reductionist science - and more particularly the “centralised” view of the brain which her own work has helped to demolish.

After some years as chief of Brain Biochemistry at the National Institute of Mental Health, Candace Pert is now a research professor at Georgetown University in Washington. Among other things, she’s exploring the possibility that vaccines have led to America’s autism epidemic, and is increasingly worried about the new psychiatric drugs like Prozac - which, ironically, her own work helped lay the ground for.

But overarchingly Pert is committed to the holistic model of health. This began with her part in the momentous discovery that the immune system contained receptors for brain peptides. (Peptides are the molecules which make up proteins.) This at last forged a demonstrable link between emotional and physical health. The finding led to the new science of psycho-neuro-immunology.

“These emotion-affecting peptides actually appear to control the routing and migration of monocytes [types of white blood cells], which are pivotal to the overall health of the organism,” she writes in her book, Molecules of Emotion. (Simon & Schuster.)

“The immune system, like the central nervous system, has memory and the ability to learn. Thus, it could be said that intelligence is located not only in the brain but in the cells that are distributed throughout the body, and that the traditional separation of mental processes, including emotions, from the body is no longer valid.“

Or, as she boldly sums up: “The body is the unconscious mind!”

“Healing,” Dr Pert told The Herald, “is carried out by cells of the immune system, which move based upon receptors on their surface that are for these molecules of emotion.

“Thus healing can be stopped by an emotional state that has the wrong chemicals. On the other hand people really do have  sudden, miraculous healings when there is sudden emotional shift.”

Molecules of Emotion begins as an eye-opener into the intellectual warfare of modern scientific discovery - the gamesmanship, the sly purloining of others’ results - but also into the round-the-clock work, the exhilaration of a shared breakthrough, and the slow, painful rise of women in the scientific professions.

The book concludes with the author integrating the science she pioneered with the holistic “energy medicines” which work on the same principles - till now without scientific rationales.

In 1986, Candace Pert took her peptide knowledge a quantum leap forward, inventing an anti-HIV drug, “Peptide T”.

Peptide T, she says, makes the virus “totally go away” in the test tube, and has no observed side-effects.

The drug is now in a small “phase two” human trial. The Age asked Dr Pert how the trial was shaping up. After a whispered conversation with her husband and research partner, immunologist Michael Ruff, she responded:

“I’m allowed to say that five of the six patients who completed the first two months have shown an immunological change which suggests that their immune systems are being restored. In the jargon, the percentage of CD8 cells secreting gamma-interferon has gone up five and six-fold on the average, which is really huge.”

The drug also shows promise for psoriasis, Alzheimer’s, MS and a number of neuro-inflammatory diseases. But it’s been a 15-year-long road to acceptance - battling the AIDS establishment all the way. Candace Pert has often had to draw on the wisdom she has gleaned from her new, holistic constituency:

“Peptide T is like a Moby Dick situation. If I harpoon this thing it’s either going to pull me to the bottom of the ocean, or to the top of the world. I’ve got to learn to ride it out, and let it happen the way it’s meant to happen.

“In martial arts - instead of pushing, you sometimes have to step to the side and let it flow.”

Having raised three children, Professor Pert is now auditioning church choirs - “to figure out which one I want to sing with” - and getting her cello out of mothballs: “The greatest spiritual thing now for me is music. It really helps me to relax and be effective.”

Life has broadened out a lot since those round-the-clock days in the lab, and the mid-career phase where she became so marginalised she had to work from her garage. Her best friend is a New Age country and western singer, and she’s heading to Jamaica shortly for a Qi Gung workshop.

Her work on the “molecules of emotion” has taken on a life of its own, providing a slew of holistic therapies with scientific rationales for the first time, and is now gaining mainstream acceptance.

Candace Pert is still blazing trails, but: “I’m not infamous any more,” she laughs. “I’m starting to be mainstream. So I can do anything! I’m only hindered by my own programs of self-sabotage. We all have them, you know.”

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