Early in November Baltimore Colt quarterback Bert Jones threw three touchdown passes to lead his team to a 21-17 victory over the Redskins. Jones's passing seemed to be a triumph over severe pain in his right shoulder. 'Skins head coach Jack Pardee said Jones was faking-but Dr. Candace Pert, a pharmacological researcher at the National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda, disagrees.
Watching the game on television, Pert thought she could detect the influence of a pituitary chemical which may be one way the body deadens pain."It was a classic endorphin turn-on," she said of Jones's performance. "I don't think he was faking at all."
That bit of sports lore helps illustrate how short is the leap from the complexities of Pert's research (an upcoming scientific paper, co-authored with post-doctoral fellow Tomaso Costa, will be called "Is the Benzodiazepine Receptor Coupled to a Chloride Anion Channel?") to the ordinary world of pleasure and pain.
Pain, in fact, helped start Pert on her career in the emerging field of neuroscience. In the summer of 1970, just before she was to enter Johns Hopkins as a graduate student, she broke her back in a riding accident. While recuperating, she became interested in the painkilling effect of morphine injections. When she got back on her feet, she became involved in a research project on morphine's effects on the brain. That project led last November to a Lasker Foundation Basic Science Award to her dissertation adviser, Dr. Solomon H. Snyder, for the discovery of the "receptor" in the brain on which opium derivatives work.
That discovery, and a parallel breakthrough by another group which isolated enkephalin, a brain chemical that works like "natural morphine," may lead to a cure for heroin addiction-and to medicine's longstanding fantasy-the nonaddictive painkiller. But for Pert, a voluble 32-year-old whose words flow faster than most people's synapses fire, those are yesterday's implications.
"Enkephalin is the tip of the iceberg," she said. "This is really in a way like atomic energy."
Pert now directs a team of post-doctoral fellows at the National Institute for Mental Health who are studying the receptors for a drug called benzodiazepine, which millions of mellow Americans call Valium. That could lead to isolation of another brain chemical, like enkephalin, which helps givern nervousness and calm."The stuff in the brain could be Valium," Pert said. "But it could also be the stuff that makes you nervous-we call it jitterin."
Pert's team is also trying to determine which opium receptor sites govern emotion. "You might be able to cure depression," she says matter-of-factly. Another project, in collaboration with Temple University psychologist David L. Margules, may lead to a chemical antidote for inherited obesity. And Pert is also testing two new brain chemicals which don't correspond to any known drug. "It could produce anthing," she said, "from something to improve your memory to something to put in the water to make everybody fall in love with you."
Pert's husband, Dr. Agu Pert, is a psychobiologist with an office adjoining hers in the biochemistry and pharmacology section of NIMH's biological psychiatry branch. Candace was an English major at Bryn Mawr ("Girls are supposed to be English majors," she said) until Agu suggested she try biology.
She got her Ph.D. from Hopkins in 1974 and since then they have collaborated on projects including a study of the effects of lithium carbonate, the widely used mood stabilizer, on brain receptors. They have two children, Evan, 12, and Vanessa, 3. Even her experience in childbirth developed into an interest in drug-free delivery, about which she co-authored an article for Family Circle a few years ago.
The family lives five minutes from the sprawling National Institutes of Health complex. "Our house is our hobby," Candace said.
But most of their time is spent on research. Listening to Candace Pert spin off ideas, one gets a sense of what it is must be like to live at the edge of a scientific wave. "They're going to look back on this decade as the time we began to take the brain apart," she said. Each new discovery and paper spawns a rash of new experiments by scientists and neurosurgeons-and a surge of patent applications by drug companies. "It's a very exciting thing," she said. "But it is frightening."
For Pert, hope overshadows any fear-hope that her work in the coming year may represent progress toward an eventual cure for mental illness. "People will tell you the most intimate details of their sex lives-I mean strangers on a plane," she said. "But if someone has a brother or a sister or a husband who has cracked up, that's a deep dark secret." CAPTION: Picture, no caption, By Bill Snead