History of the Neurosciences in the USA Part II

This is the second of two articles on the history of neurosciences. You’ll find Part I of this article here.

Julius Axelrod was a biochemist who began his career working in pharmacology after famously being denied admission to medical school. He won the 1970 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for discoveries regarding the pre-synaptic storage, release, and re-uptake of neurotransmitters. His initial work involved the catecholamines, his discoveries deriving from the development of monoamine oxidase inhibitors. In his career, he characterized the enzyme catechol-O-methyltransferase, and in 1965, proffered the “melatonin hypothesis”, arguing that melatonin was released from the pineal gland in response to changes in environmental lighting.

Interestingly, Axelrod’s training with Bernard Brodie included a grant given with a charge to uncover the source of methemoglobinemia associated with non-aspirin analgesics in the 1940’s. They recommended that the use of acetanilide, the primary active ingredient in these medications, be replaced with its metabolite, paracetamol (acetaminophen, to the Americans).

Axelrod also spent a significant portion of his early career studying the sympathomimetics, including caffeine, amphetamine, dopamine, and serotonin. He was also among the first to study metabolism of lysergic acid diethylamide-25 (LSD)7 in the late 1950’s. Despite the media attention received by LSD, Axelrod received surprisingly little notoriety with regard to this arm of his research.

When Eric Kandel was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 2000, his claim that “it was a Jewish-American Nobel” motivated then Austrian president Thomas Klestil to replace anti-Semite Karl Leuger’s name in what is now Doktor-Karl-Renner-Ring, and created scholarships to bring the Jewish intellectual community back to Vienna. Kandel, incredibly influential in the neurosciences as well, is the primary author of Principles of Neural Science, and was awarded the Nobel Prize for his work in synaptic plasticity.

Beginning his work by performing electrophysiologic recording of the hippocampus, and quickly expanding to explain mechanisms behind cAMP-mediated sensitization, and NMDA and AMPA receptor-mediated long-term potentiation, and long-term depression, Kandel has contributed a staggering amount to our understanding of complex memory by studying the sea slug, Aplysia8.

Most recently, Linda Buck and Richard Axel won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2004, for demonstrating the basis for olfaction. Specifically, they showed that olfactory receptors belong to the G-protein coupled class of receptors9. They have shown that each olfactory receptor neuron only expresses one type of olfactory receptor protein, and that the mammalian genome encodes a thousand different olfactory receptor types. Axel held a number of well-known patents, including for a technique of DNA transfection used commonly in cell biology; in addition, his laboratory was one of the first to identify the CD4 co-receptor and its link to the HIV virus.

Over the course of the last two hundred years, Americans have played critical roles in every branch of the neurosciences, as well as in their clinical translation through neurology, neurosurgery, and psychiatry. Neuromodulation, brain-machine interface, gene therapy, and the newest aspects of neuroscience are being introduced in the United States.

Harvey Cushing, the father of modern neurosurgery, reminded us, “In these days when science is clearly in the saddle and when our knowledge of disease is advancing at a breathless pace, we are apt to forget that not all can ride and that he also serves who waits and who applies what the horseman discovers.”

We remain in a golden age of discovery in neural science and the application of those discoveries, and we are excited to see what names will be mentioned alongside these important contributors to our field in the future. We call upon all readers to take up the saddle and report on what is discovered; and to those who choose to wait, learn and serve, we ask that they read us often.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.