Candace Pert, PhD: Reflecting on a Revolutionary

Candace Pert, PhD: Reflecting on a Revolutionary


Over the past few decades, the field of mind-body medicine has moved beyond the counter culture and into the mainstream. The scientific focus has shifted from the reductionistic view of health as a process based on discrete biological systems to a complex network of dynamic and interrelated systems. It involves the integration of the nervous, immune and endocrine systems, with insights from psychology and emotions research.  This field, that has become known as psychoneuroimmunology (PNI), was informed by the pioneering work of revolutionary scientists. Among them, pharmacologist Candace Pert helped add vital new perspectives on the model of health based on a unified healing system.  In particular, Pert helped develop the concept of a psychosomatic network that involves molecules of emotion and their physiological consequences.

During the 1970’s, while Pert was at Johns Hopkins, she and her colleague, Solomon Snyder, identified the first brain drug opiate receptor. This was later shown to have important pain and mood-modifying components.  Working with Miles Herkenham, Pert created sophisticated methods for mapping the distribution of neuropeptide receptors throughout the body.  They discovered that these opiate receptors were found in significant concentrations in the emotional centers of the brain.  It has also been shown to extend throughout the body, linking biology to our feelings and experiences.

In the mid 1980’s, Pert was part of an innovative program at the Institute of Noetic Sciences to advance serious research on the nature of the healing system. Led by Brendan O’Regan, a systems researcher and Vice President for Science (WHERE?), this program sought to support the development of a field that had yet to fully exist.  Now considered standard science, O’Regan, Pert and their multidisciplinary team of scientists argued that there are links to the mind-body through a healing system beyond other physiological systems that have been identified (eg., nervous system, immune system).

As an innovator, Pert was always ready to ask the big questions.  In a chapter that she co-wrote (Pert, Dreher, and Ruff, 2005. “The Psychosomatic Network: Foundations of Mind-Body Medicine.”) in my book, Consciousness and Healing: Integral Approaches to Mind Body Medicine by Schlitz, Amorok, and Micozzi (Elsevier), a foundation was established for a broader exploration. To quote them:

Deeper questions concern the nature of mind—that presumably nonmaterial, nonphysical substrate of observable processes characterized by the flow of information throughout the bodymind. The word “soul” is still assiduously avoided by academic scientists. But what animates the neuropeptides in their flow patterns through the body? What animates the receptors?…

These questions may be largely unanswerable by the current methods of mainstream science, though researchers have sought to explain how varieties of energy medicine, prayer and other spiritual practices support the healing system. But research on healing energies, whether delineated in Western terms (bioelectromagnetism, nonlocal consciousness) or Eastern spiritual or medical terms (e.g., qi, kundalini, prana) may shed light on the immaterial substrates of the molecules of emotion” (p. 77).

I have long been a fan of Pert’s work. More significantly, I was gifted to call her a dear friend. She was spirited, brilliant, and filled with heart. Her passion for life and her devotion to friends and family was magnificent. Candace died unexpectedly on September 13, 2013. She will be missed, though her contributions live on. I was delighted to record an interview with her in late 2012, and will be posting it soon.