7 January 2013. SRF notes the passing of Nobel-prize winning neuroscientist Rita Levi-Montalcini on 30 December 2012 in Rome, Italy. She was 103. Her work in discovering nerve growth factor (NGF) gave neuroscience its first example of a diffusible, growth-promoting molecule, opening a window onto basic principles of nervous system development.
Rita Levi-Montalcini, elegant doyenne of neuroscience.
NGF itself is not directly linked to schizophrenia, but faulty brain development may be, and the field that grew up around neurotrophic factors illuminated how fledgling neurons find and connect to their eventual targets. The assortment of other growth-promoting molecules discovered after NGF also suggests strategies for redirecting miswired neural connections. Indeed, some research suggests that schizophrenia and other psychiatric illnesses may involve disrupted brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) signaling (Autry et al., 2012).
Nerve fibers radiate out from an isolated ganglion immersed in an NGF-containing medium.
Born in 1909, Levi-Montalcini attended medical school in Turin, Italy, then began work as a research assistant in neurobiology. World War II interrupted her research when Jews were forbidden to work in universities in Italy. Renowned for her dedication, Levi-Montalcini continued her experiments on chick embryos in a makeshift laboratory in her bedroom. After the war, she went to the United States to work with Viktor Hamburger at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, where she remained for 26 years researching the question of how neurons found and connected to their targets. In 1986, Levi-Montalcini and Stanley Cohen shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for the discovery of NGF. She eventually returned to Italy to found the European Brain Research Institute (EBRI) in Rome in 2002. Though she did not marry or have children, she mentored countless young scientists.—Michele Solis.