Dr. Candace B. Pert wrote: “I am alarmed at the monster that Johns Hopkins neuroscientist Solomon Snyder and I created when we discovered the simple binding assay for drug receptors 25 years ago. Prozac and other antidepressant serotonin-receptor-active compounds may also cause cardiovascular problems in some susceptible people after long-term use, which has become common practice despite the lack of safety studies. The public is being misinformed about the precision of these selective serotonin-uptake inhibitors when the medical profession oversimplifies their action in the brain and ignores the body as if it exists merely to carry the head around! In short, these molecules of emotion regulate every aspect of our physiology. A new paradigm has evolved, with implications that lifestyle changes such as diet and exercise can offer profound, safe and natural mood elevation.”
There’s a saying that goes, “If you’re not on the edge, you’re taking up too much room.” By that standard, neuroscientist Candace Pert has occupied minimal space during her 26-year career. But in reality, Pert’s presence has loomed large in the scientific community. The iconoclastic researcher has a knack for stirring up controversy. One minute she’s making jaw-dropping pronouncements such as “Science, at its core, is a spiritual endeavor.”
The next, she’s declaring that the body and the mind are actually part of a linked system she calls the bodymind. Pert is best known for her pivotal role in the discovery of opiate receptors-molecules that unlock cells in the brain so that morphine and other opiates, including the body’s natural opiate, endorphins, can enter.
But it’s her continuing research into the biochemical substances called neuropeptides that have placed her at odds with conventional scientific thinking about illness and healing. After years of studying the form and function of neuropeptides (tiny bits of protein that consist of strings of amino acids), Pert has concluded that they are responsible for our emotions – not only the familiar feelings of anger, fear, sadness, joy, contentment, and courage, but also spiritual inspiration, awe, bliss, and other states of consciousness that scientists have never physiologically explained.
Scientists have found neuropeptide receptors throughout the nervous system, and PERT’s research has shown that the immune system also produces its own. She has come to believe that the brain and the nervous, endocrine, and immune systems are interlocked in a “psychoimmunoendocrine” network that serves as a multidirectional, body-wide system in which every part communicates with every other part.
This concept nullifies the prevailing idea that the mind has power over the body. “Instead, emotions are the nexus between mind and matter, going back and forth between the two and influencing both,” says Pert.
Neuropeptides, Emotion and the BodyMind
excerpt from article by Leigh Lehane c. 2002
Moshe Feldenkrais was a genius way ahead of his time when he wrote in 1964: “My contention is that the unity of mind and body is an objective reality, that they are not entities related to each other in one fashion or another, but an inseparable whole while functioning. To put the point more clearly I contend that a brain without motor functions could not think, or at least that the continuity of mental functions is assured by corresponding motor functions.”
Feldenkrais went on to say that we have no sensation of the inner workings of the central nervous system, but feel their manifestation only as far as sensations from the body provoke our awareness. This is the state of consciousness! He concluded that “…the state of the [cerebral] cortex is directly and legibly visible on the periphery through the attitude, posture and muscular configuration, which are all connected. Any change in the nervous system translates itself clearly through a change of attitude, posture and muscular configuration. They are not two states, but aspects of the same state.”
This hypothetical stance taken by Feldenkrais – that the mind and body are one – was substantiated by the practical work he had been exploring for 30 years to assist people to move more easily. It was shared by a pioneering group of thinker-explorers of the 20th century – among them F. Matthias Alexander, Ida Rolf, Gerda Alexander and Elsa Gindler – who were interested in finding practical ways of furthering human development.
However, the most significant breakthrough in our scientific understanding of the bodymind did not come until the early 1970’s, when Dr. Candace Pert discovered and measured the opiate receptor and thus launched her career as a distinguished bench scientist. Before that , a receptor was mostly an idea: a hypothetical site believed to be located in the cells of all living things. The scientists who most needed to believed in receptors were pharmacologists, because it was the only way they knew to explain the action of drugs.
Since her first discovery, Dr. Pert and her colleagues have gone on to specify, measure and map a wide variety of molecules (receptors) embedded in the membranes of neurons and other cells in the body (e.g. muscle, lung, gut, glandular, and immune system cells), whose functions are different from other receptors in cell membranes. When all are discovered, Pert expects there will be around 300 neuropeptides, all with different actions on individual cells and on overall behavior.
It would not be an exaggeration to way that the scientists have discovered a “second nervous system”, equally as important as the first. Neuroscience had long been focused on the concept of the nervous system as an electrical network with neurotransmitters at the synapses allowing electrical impulses to pass from neuron to neuron. Dr. Pert now says the only about 2% of communication within the brain occurs via synapses and 98% by information molecules such as hormones and neuropeptides, which act over longer distances.
Molecules of Emotion
Dr. Pert has called the neuropeptides and their receptors “molecules of emotion”. The information-carrying peptide molecules circulate freely about the body in the cerebrospinal fluid, blood and other extracellular fluids, and their action at specific receptor sites on cells connects not only various organs and biological processes but also mental and physical states. When our emotions cause us to go red in the face or to sweat, these effects are not responses to messages from the brain.
Rather, they are produced directly at the cellular level when neuropeptides bind to their receptors. This is what makes both neuropeptides and their receptors “molecules of emotion”. different cells and tissues in the body produce greater or lesser amounts of particular peptides. A classic example of tissues that produce peptides that cause certain strong gelling and emotions would be the ovaries and testes.
The natural substances that bind to the opiate receptors are enkephalins or endorphins (depending on whether you are British or American). These are natural opiates and are shot out into the circulation after severe trauma, such as burns, to deaden that pain immediately. There are produced in smaller amounts in athletes, e.g. the so-called “runner’s high” experienced by marathon runners. Opiates are also circulating freely when we are in a state of well-being, or in a rare state of sheer bliss!
This constant, changing flow of molecular information throughout the body occurs mainly outside our conscious awareness. We become aware of something happening only when we feel moods and emotions, but this is only a fraction of the activity going on – which helps explain why the source of psychosomatic ailments such as irritable colon are attributed to the subconscious mind.
In establishing the biomolecular basis for emotions, Pert demonstrated convincingly – in a way that no one has done before – that body and mind are one. An important spin-off of the research is the provision of a basis for answering the question, “How is it that some bodywork modalities are able to be of such enormous therapeutic value?”
The answer to the debate that has been raging for many years – whether emotions, drives and feeling originate in the brain or in other tissues of the body – lies in understanding how the brain and body interact to produce both visceral (or involuntary) physiological states and the experience of emotions. According to Eckhart Tolle, emotion arises at the place where mind and body meet, and could be defined as the body’s reaction to the mind.
The research of Dr. Candace Pert and her colleagues shows that neuropeptide interactions take place in both directions. Every change in the physiological state is accompanied by a change in the mental emotional state, conscious or unconscious; and conversely, every change in the emotional state is accompanied by a change in the physiological state. The regulator of this process – the place where the mind and body meet – is known by some as the limbic system.
The Limbic System
The limbic system or “emotional brain” is that part of the brain concerned with emotions and memory response. Although there is not complete agreement on the definitions and structure of the limbic system, it is generally considered that its main parts are paired structures located medially in the forebrain. It encircles the upper part of the brain stem, and lies strategically between the lover (brain stem) and the higher (cognitive) regions of the brain. It is the area through which all sensory information coming up through the spinal cord enters the brain, and through which all motor commands flow back downward. It is also the center through which information from all the special sense organs of the cranium enters the brain.
The limbic system or emotional brain has the densest collection of neuropeptide bonding sites in the brain. Neurons in these areas can manufacture, send and receive every one of the neuropeptides now known. Each neuron can display millions of neuropeptide receptors on its membrane at any given time and can change the population of specific types of receptors displayed, according to either previous stimuli or current needs.
Concentrations of neuropeptide receptors are especially dense in areas where sensory information enters the brain, and where motor connections are distributed to both skeletal and autonomic muscular systems. Our deepest convictions – those that unconsciously structure all of our individual experience and behavior are products of the limbic system.
The blood delivers neuropeptides secreted by the brain to their target cells in different and distant tissues, and carries neuropeptides secreted by these tissues to their targets and back to the brain. The limbic system is where chemical information from its neurons and from the blood (matter) connects with electrical nerve impulses in the brain (mind), and where the true union between mind and matter takes place.
Candace Pert observes: “Emotions are at the nexus between matter and mind, going back and forth between the two and influencing both.”
Habitual Muscular Patterns
One of the major impacts of shifting emotions and their underlying neuropeptide chemistry is on our muscles. Without conscious awareness, everything we do with our muscles relies on habit patterns. As well as performing numerous motor function, muscles are themselves sense organs, contributing enormously to our body image and sense of the environment. Changes in feeling states create changes in motor performance. As Dr. Deane Juhan says: “Our emotions are constantly leaking into our muscular activities, and are either enhancing or debilitating our performance on every level,” We can suppress large portions of those feeling, which will disrupt that awareness and regulation; or we can fixate on patterns of behavior that favor the dominance of one feeling state over all the others, which limits our available responses and strategies for adapting.
As well as affecting our movements and behavior, emotions become set in our shapes or posture, as Stanley Keleman demonstrated so elegantly in 1985. He says that uprightness, the mark of human development, is altered by insults, challenges and assaults, and that one’s shape is changed by one’s emotional history. Keleman wrote: “Insults and shocks, stress and distress are imprinted on every cell, creating a somatic, emotional, psychological image that is enmeshed with all the events of life.” He believes that distress creates contractions or weaknesses that distort “pulsation”, and that somatic education brings people into the living foundation of existence – the “pulsatory waves” that generate excitement, feeling, thinking and action.
Since we now know that emotional expression is always tied to a specific flow of neuropeptides, it is possible that the chronic suppression of emotion can result in massive disturbance of the psychosomatic network, leading to immunodeficency and disease.
Dr. Pert believes that there is no state of mind that is not mimicked by the state of the immune systems, that repressed emotions are stored in the body – the unconscious mind – by means of neuropeptides, and that memories are stored in neuropeptide receptors.
Dr. Pert believes that the practical experience of bodywork bringing up strong emotions and memories is direct evidence that these are stored in body tissues and is, in fact, the major piece of therapeutic information gained from her work on neuropeptides. She is a self-confessed fan of bodywork, saying that people respond to touch in a surprising way, and that body-centered approaches can be effective where talk and other therapy are not. Research has shown that the ground state of a particular receptor reflects the history of its past and affects how information flows into and out of the cell. Every receptor “remembers” how often it has been stimulated and whether it has been under or overstimulated.
These discoveries have led Dr. Pert to discard the old model – of the brain controlling the body – and dub the body the “subconscious mind”. She says that emotional states are altered states of consciousness, and emotions are the link between the physical and mental realms. When stored or blocked emotions are released through touch and other physical methods, there is a clearing of our internal pathways, which we experience as energy.