Love and Other (Gateway) Drugs

How do you keep things fresh in a relationship after 55 years of marriage? If you are prolific Columbia University scientists Eric and Denise Kandel, you collaborate on a research project for the first time.

While every neuroscience undergraduate knows Nobel Laureate Eric Kandel, his wife, Denise, has some serious science chops of her own. A professor of sociomedical science at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health, Denise’s main research interests center on risk factors and consequences of drug use. Decades of epidemiological research suggested that smoking acted as a gateway to harder drugs. After hearing Eric give a lecture on cocaine, plasticity, and histone acetylation, she wondered if perhaps an epigenetic model might help explain the relationship between nicotine and cocaine addiction.

“That’s how the whole thing started, really. It triggered this idea,” she says. “And it is important to mention because I think that oftentimes a scientific collaboration or scientific success arises out of a chance event and a prepared mind.”

Still, she didn’t ask her husband to collaborate on this particular “chance event” at first. “I didn’t think he was interested,” she says matter-of-factly. So, instead, she asked him to recommend a few other scientists who might want to collaborate. None of them were available.

“I don’t know why but Denise had trouble coming up with another collaborator,” Eric says. “But as we discussed it more, I felt the problem was interesting so, at that point, I stepped in. But it was the failure to come up with another collaborator that really encouraged me to try it.”

The study, heralded as a landmark experiment by both the neurobiological and epidemiological communities, demonstrated for the first time how nicotine can act as a “gateway,” accelerating the cellular and epigenetic processes that facilitate drug addiction (see Dana's story about it).

When I asked the Kandels how well their personal partnership translated to one in the lab, Eric laughed. “It was difficult at the beginning. Denise asked a lot of questions that I felt were interfering with my own line of thought,” he said. “But I soon realized that I needed to hear those questions. That’s the point of collaboration. You pick two very different approaches to address a problem. Once I realized that, we fell into step.”

“Eric was exasperated because I said we needed to do more work on the figures for the paper,” she says. “But he admits now that I was right. The figures look very good.”

“Yes, they do,” he says. “The figures look very good.”

And any advice to other couples on the brink of scientific collaboration?

“It’s been very exciting to work together,” says Denise. “But it’s not easy.”

“I don’t think one can give general advice to the lovelorn here,” Eric adds. “We’re both strong, independent people and I think, in any collaboration with two strong, independent people, there’s going to be some awkwardness initially. But I have a sense of enormous satisfaction that we accomplished this together. And I’m glad that we’re continuing on together.”

The two are currently working on a study to see whether alcohol results in a similar gateway mechanism. And they hope to later examine marijuana, too. And while the two are excited by the scientific possibilities, they admit they are pleased to have the chance to work together, too.

“It’s wonderful to be able to spend this time together,” says Eric. “And it’s wonderful to finally have a way to look at these questions about gateway drugs. I’m hoping that our collaboration will inspire a whole new field of translational epidemiology.”

What better Valentine could a scientific couple ask for?

–Kayt Sukel

Sukel's first book, Dirty Minds: How our brains influence love, sex, and relationships, is available now.

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