Candace Pert Interview

Carolyn and I have appreciated the work of the late neuroscientist and pharmacologist Candace Pert, who conducted groundbreaking research that changed the way scientists view the relationship between mind and body, and was a major proponent of alternative medicine. Pert discovered the opiate receptor— the cellular binding site for endorphins in the brain— and she paved the way for the field of mind-body medicine.

Candace Beebe Pert was born in 1946 in New York City. Her father was a commercial artist and her mother worked in the courts as a clerk typist. Although Pert was initially interested in studying psychology, she studied biology in college and sought a more solid scientific basis for understanding human behavior. Pert completed her undergraduate studies in biology cum laude in 1970 at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania.

In 1972, while still a graduate student in her mid-twenties at Johns Hopkins University, Pert discovered the opiate receptor, the molecular-docking site where drugs like opium and morphine bind to nerve cells in the human brain. This breakthrough finding led to the discovery of endorphins— natural, painkilling opiate-like chemicals in the brain, which Pert refers to as “the underlying mechanism for bliss and bonding.”

These findings dramatically increased our understanding of how drugs interact with the nervous system, and how the body and brain communicate with each other. Pert went on to discover numerous receptor sites for other drugs and naturally occurring substances in the brain, and she helped map the chemical communication system that operates between the brain and the immune system. This paved the way for an understanding of mind-body medicine and the biochemical basis for emotions.

In 1974, Pert received her Ph.D. in pharmacology, with distinction, from the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, where she worked in the laboratory of Solomon Snyder. From 1975 to 1987, Pert conducted research at the National Institute of Mental Health, where she served as Chief of the Section on Brain Biochemistry in the Clinical Neuroscience Branch. In 1987, Pert founded a private biotech laboratory that she directed for a few years, and then conducted AIDS research in the Department of Physiology and Biophysics at Georgetown University Medical Center in Washington D.C.

Pert spent over forty years trying to decode the biochemical language of what she refers to as the body’s “information molecules”— such as peptides and other ligands— which regulate the biochemical aspects of human physiology. Her interdisciplinary model of the “body-mind” explains how these chemicals distribute information simultaneously to every cell in the body. This understanding has unlocked the secret of how our emotions can literally create or destroy our health.

Many people believe that Pert should have won the Nobel Prize for her discovery of the opiate receptor— which is considered one of the most important discoveries in the history of neuroscience— but that internal politics interfered with her being properly recognized for her work. In this regard, it is important to note that Pert discovered the opiate receptor only after her supervisor had specifically ordered her to stop looking for it, concluding that it was a fruitless search, and Pert had to continue her research in secret.

Pert’s supervisor, Solomon Snyder, was later awarded the Lasker Award (an award for outstanding medical research) for its discovery without her. Such omissions are common in the world of science; contributions by graduate students in a research lab are rarely acknowledged beyond listing them as the primary author on the published article. However, Pert did something unusual: she protested, sending a letter to the head of the foundation that awards the prize, saying she had “played a key role in initiating the research and following it up” and was “angry and upset to be excluded.” Her letter caused significant discussion in the field, and many saw her exclusion as a typical example of the barriers women face in science careers.

In 1997, Pert’s book, Molecules of Emotion: Why You Feel the Way You Feel, was published. It recounts the story of her revolutionary discovery, the development of her research, and the evolution of her philosophy, as well as the storm of controversy that formed around her work. It reads like a spellbinding action-adventure story and offers a personal and insightful reinterpretation of neuroscience and mind-body medicine.

In 2001, Pert was featured in Washingtonian magazine as one of Washington’s fifty “Best and Brightest” individuals, and she was featured in Bill Moyers’s highly acclaimed PBS television series Healing and the Mind, as well as in the companion book that went with the series. Pert created the audio series Your Body Is Your Subconscious Mind, and also a psychoactive CD to enhance healing and personal transformation called To Feel Go(o)d.

Pert lectured extensively about the implications of her research for mind-body medicine, and her work helped to heal the pathological divisions in Western culture between mind and body, science and spirituality. “Finally, here is a Western scientist who has done the work to explain the unity of matter and spirit, body and soul!” wrote physician Deepak Chopra in the introduction to her book.

Pert’s research interests have ranged from decoding “information molecules” to trying to find cures for cancer and AIDS. She held a number of patents for modified peptides in the treatment of psoriasis, Alzheimer’s disease, chronic fatigue syndrome, stroke, and head trauma. One of these, peptide T, was found to be helpful for the treatment of AIDS. Pert has published more than 250 scientific papers on peptides and their receptors, and the role of these neuropeptides in the immune system. Some of Dr. Pert’s papers are among the most cited scientific papers in human history.

Pert died in 2013 at the age of 67. She is remembered for the important role that she played in how Mind-Body medicine became recognized as an area of legitimate scientific research. According to Pert’s website, her fans refer to her as The Mother of Psychoneuroimmunology and The Goddess of Neuroscience. A book about Pert’s life by Pamela Ryckman was recently published, Candace Pert: Genuis, Greed, and Madness in the World of Science.

I interviewed Candace Pert in 2004 for my book Conversations on the Edge of the Apocalypse. Candace generates a lot of warmth and positive energy. She gets excited and enthusiastic about her ideas, and she laughs a lot. My impression of Candace was that she was like an octopus, capable of doing innumerable tasks at once. Here are some excerpts from our conversation:

David: John Lilly was a big fan of your work. That’s how I first found out about you actually. He used to talk about you a lot.

Candace: I have pictures of him and me. He came to the National Cathedral. He was wonderful. God, that’s such a shame when people have to die. I’ve had people close to me die, and sometimes I think there are some amazing communications and synchronicities, where you think that they are trying to communicate, or some aspect of what has survived is coming back. There are some amazing stories, with things like doors slamming. I’ve had a few things happen at funerals. I’ve been through quite a few funerals in the last few years, and have seen things like leaves swirling at critical moments in the burial ceremony. There’s stuff that seems kind of amazing.

David: What is your concept of God, and do you see any teleology in evolution?

Candace: We don’t have to say that evolution is guided by intelligence, but it’s very clear to me that the process itself— stars cooling, entropy, evolution— is always leading toward more and more complexity and more and more perfection. So, the actual physical laws of the universe are God. You don’t have to invoke anything beyond that. I mean, God is not incompatible with the laws of science. God is a manifestation of that. There’s no incompatibility. We’re not talking about The Bible; we’re talking about the true laws of science. So, I guess that’s why I’m so into truth-seeking because truth-seeking is God-seeking at the same time.

David:  What do you think happens to consciousness after death?

Candace: That’s a great question. Years ago, I had to answer that question to get a big honorarium, so I participated, and what I said then is still relevant. It’s this idea that information is never destroyed. More and more information is constantly being created, and it’s not lost, and energy and matter are interconvertible. So somehow there must be some survival because one human being represents a huge amount of information. So, I can imagine that there is survival, but I’m not sure exactly what form that it takes. I think Buddhist practice is interesting. There’s this whole idea that you’re actually preparing yourself for death, and if you do it just right you can make the transition better.

by David Jay Brown

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