Molecules of Emotion

Molecules of Emotion
Author: Candace Pert


The author of this exhilarating book was the researcher who discovered the opiate receptor – an epoch-making breakthrough that launched a completely new field in neuroscience. The book is a passionate portrayal of the hard work and creativity that resulted in the identification of the elusive receptor – a revolution which the author rightly predicted ‘would extend into every field of medicine’, and would unite endocrinology, neurophysiology and immunology. The book depicted the discovery as a paradigm shift which opened the way for the discovery of other critical receptors, and as a quantum leap which fuelled ‘a synthesis’ of behaviour, psychology, and biology. Alongside its illuminating scientific narrative, the book also paints a colourful portrait of the author whose personality is encapsulated by the pride with which she asserted that ‘it has not been my trademark to follow the rules‘. The book’s autobiographical account is particularly dominated by her unyielding determination to ensure that her female gender neither restricted her opportunities, nor diminished the worth of her achievements, and by the intense controversies which marred her relationships with her colleagues and mentor (pages 1, 30, 40 and 74).

Poppy head/stamen. on Flickr.


The opiate receptor, the major theme of the book, is the discovery which the author credits for establishing her career as ‘a bench scientist‘, and for transforming her into ‘an ascending star at the very center of the action’. She variously depicted the receptor as ‘perhaps the most elegant, rare, and complicated kind of molecule there is’, and as a molecule that ‘changes shape, switching back and forth between any number of different configurations, all the while vibrating and swaying rhythmically to some as yet unknown melodic key‘. Describing her groundbreaking research into the opiate receptor as ‘a project worthy of my dreams, my ambitions, my aspirations‘, the author enthusiastically conveyed the thrill and excitement she felt about discovering the receptor for a drug that ‘had fascinated me by its effects on mind and body‘, and ‘over which wars had been fought, kingdoms lost’. The narrative not only documented the painstaking nature of the research, but it also reported its high landmarks, such as the ‘eureka‘ experiment with radioactive-labelled naloxone that isolated the receptor. The author’s subsequent research also demonstrated the critical importance of the opiate receptor; for example, by showing that the receptors were most densely concentrated in the limbic system and the periaqueductal gray – brain regions ‘had been conserved for eons of evolutionary time‘ – she demonstrated their critical modulating role in emotions and pain, and their importance ‘to the survival of the species’ (pages 21, 46-47, 56-62, 84-87 and 90-91).

Poppy. Auntie P on Flickr.

The author went to great lengths to place the discovery of the opiate receptor in proper historical context by chronicling similar research breakthroughs that preceded it. For example, she narrated the dream-inspired discovery of the chemical nature of neurotransmission by Otto Loewi; the isolation of acetylcholine receptors from an electric eel by Jean-Pierre Changeux; and the identification of the oestrogen receptor by endocrinologist Robert Jensen. The book also described how the author’s discovery upturned the field, opening the door to the uncovering of other receptors, such as the one for dopamine, and setting off ‘a mad scramble among scientific researchers to find the natural substance in the body that used the receptor’ – what John Hughes and Hans Kosterlitz eventually discovered to be the peptide endorphin. The author also recounted how her breakthrough led to the manufacture of synthetic transmitters such as oxytocin, ‘the darling of the peptide revolution’, the impact of which she argued ‘cannot be overstated’ (pages 63-67, 80, 68-69 and 27-29).

Papaver somniferum. Tony Rodd on Flickr.

The author’s complex relationships with her colleagues, and the controversies that characterised them, formed an intriguing theme of the book. This was particularly evident in her association with Solomon H. Snyder, ‘the youngest full professor in the history of Hopkins’, and the man who taught her the fundamentals of research. She portrayed Snyder as a ‘brilliant and ambitious‘ prodigy who had ‘acquired an appetite and skill for experimentation‘, and as ‘one of the Golden Boys of the medical establishment’ who was ‘well connected and well funded‘. She placed Snyder at the forefront of neurotransmitter research, remarking that he ‘liked to think big and bold‘, but noting that he ‘saw science as a game, and he took every advantage to win’. They fell out when Snyder, who was her research supervisor, requested that she ceased work on the opiate receptor after she left to set up her own laboratory. She however rejected Snyder’s demand and stood up for what she called the ‘unabashed sexism in science‘ and its ‘ingrained bias against women’, explaining that she had ‘not been sufficiently conditioned to accept the code of loyalty‘ that science demanded. This challenge to the status quo however meant that she was left out of contention for major awards, such as the coveted Lasker Prize, and she suffered ‘alienation from my scientific family’ – a rejection that she said ‘hurt tremendously’ (pages 37-41, 92-93 and 107-120).

Poppy head. Nick Thompson on Flickr.

The author’s steadfast stand against her mentor reflected her wider concerns about the prevailing research paradigm, a situation she described as ‘big league gamesmanship‘ obsessed with scoring coups and, believing that ‘winning is everything’, focused on ‘waltzing away’ with prizes. She deplored this macho ethos of intense rivalry and competition for credit, and she criticised its ‘overriding drive to make the big score regardless of who got burned in the process’. Just as much as she abhorred the principle that winning is ‘the fuel that feeds the modern science machine‘, she also found the obsession to be ‘first with the facts’ off-putting. She however admitted that she had ‘willingly embraced this culture‘, illustrating this with how she saw the opiate receptor as her ‘ride to the top‘ even though she knew that ‘most of the women I saw were stuck on the lower rungs of the hierarchy, rarely rising above their assigned stations’. She therefore regretted, perhaps belatedly, learning how to ‘beat out a competitor‘, and ‘how to let the world know that you had won the race‘. Other features of the academic-research establishment that she found disagreeable included the ‘testosterone frenzy‘ and the ‘clash of the titans‘ that permeate scientific conferences, and the ‘bitter and intense arguments‘ which arise ‘over the order of authorship on a paper’ (pages 49-51, 73, 79, 91 and 105).

Immature capsules of opium poppy capsules. Science and Plants for Schools on Flickr.

After discovering the opiate receptor, the author went on to make other research contributions especially when she worked at the National Institute of Mental Health. Noting that she published more than 200 scientific papers, she pointed out that ‘for a while’ she was the most cited scientist at the Institute. The major research breakthroughs she credited herself included the discovery of the concept of ‘sodium shift‘ – the theory that the presence of sodium determines if a substance will be an agonist or antagonist of any receptor; developing a neuropeptide theory of emotions after reviewing the classical but antagonistic theories of William James and Walter Cannon; and investigating the immunology and oncology of neuropeptides. She however also documented major failures such as her inability to secure support and funding for Peptide T – her AIDS treatment that presumably stops HIV entry into cells. It is also noteworthy that her business ventures to develop and market Peptide T, and her involvement in the alternative medicine movement, were also unsuccessful (pages 94, 81-82, 121-129, 133-137, 159-173, 198-219, 226-236 and 245-315).

Chinese opium poppy. Thoma Quine on Flickr.


With a passionate prose, this book addresses the important field of neurochemicals and their diverse and influential roles in almost every brain process. The book documents how the discovery of opiate receptors opened up a new research horizon, and how this enhanced our understanding of how the mind and the body interact. The author’s zeal for her subject shines throughout the book, as does the feeling of injustice she harboured against the research establishment. The book has a few drawbacks such as the unhelpful and unaesthetic diagrams; the lack of evidence for many of the largely speculative views of emotions; and the author’s occasional references to her romantic fantasies. The author however compensates by extracting valuable scientific lessons from her research work, and life lessons from her forthright and honest reflections of her behaviour.

Overall assessment

This book is a thoroughly enjoyable account that portrays the insights and perseverance that drive the research process, and the politics and human nature that often threaten to derail it. Its academic themes explore the boundaries of neurophysiology, endocrinology, pathology, and pharmacology, and these are relevant to healthcare. Whilst the book also juxtaposes rigorous science with the less conventional beliefs of alternative medicine, its major thrust is to demonstrate the direct impact of bench to bedside medicine, and I recommend it to all doctors.

Book details

Publisher, Place, Year:  Pocket Books, London, 1997
Number of chapters: 13
Number of pages: 368
ISBN: 978-0-6710-3397-2
Star rating: 4
Price: £7.37

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