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Patricia Goldman-Rakic dies

Sudden death of multidisciplinary trailblazer in frontal lobe studies shocks the world of neuroscience

By | August 7, 2003

Preeminent neuroscientist Patricia Goldman-Rakic, credited with having first detailed the structure and function of the brain's frontal lobe, died July 31 at Yale-New Haven Hospital. She was 66 and had been struck by a car 2 days earlier while crossing a street in Hamden, Conn.

"World neuroscience has lost one of its best leaders. She did so much and would have accomplished so much more," said Alberto Aguayo, secretary general of the International Brain Research Organization in the group's announcement of Goldman-Rakic's death.

"Her work [exploring the] uniquely evolved human frontal lobe parted the waters for a new understanding of complex aspects of cognition and behavior and for understanding very dramatic aberrations such as those seen in schizophrenia," said Daniel Weinberger, chief of the clinical brain disorders branch of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH).

For many years, the frontal lobe was considered inaccessible to rigorous exploration. Weinberger described Goldman-Rakic's focus as "an in-depth elaboration of the workings of the frontal lobe from single cells to… how cells communicated with each other to how primates behaved. This was all part of her work and part of what made her a pioneer."

Her studies laid the groundwork for understanding the neurobiological basis of normal behavior and of mental illnesses that reflect malfunctions of the frontal lobe. These include Alzheimer disease, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, cerebral palsy, dementia, Parkinson disease, and schizophrenia. She concentrated much research on what she called "working memory," describing it as the "blackboard of the mind" or "online memory."

Goldman-Rakic's work in this area reflected an advance beyond the older notion of "short-term memory" as a brief holding area for data en route to long-term storage. Working with rhesus monkeys, she made the seminal discovery that individual cells in the prefrontal cortex are dedicated to specific memory tasks, such as remembering a face or a voice.

Studies she did in the 1970s demonstrated that the loss of dopamine in the prefrontal cortex led to severe disruptions in working memory, a profound discovery for neuropsychiatry. It laid the groundwork for understanding the symptoms of a broad range of mental illnesses and the effects of the drugs used to treat them.

Eric R. Kandel of Columbia University told The Scientist, "Her distinct contribution was that she brought a broad multidisciplinary approach to bear on the region associated with the highest functioning." Kandel commended the level of her work in "biochemistry, in…anatomy, and in very sophisticated cellular physiology and [the way that she] combined it all to bring new insights to the functioning of working memory."

Born in Salem, Mass., in 1937, Goldman-Rakic earned a bachelor's degree cum laude from Vassar College in 1959 and a doctorate from the University of California in 1963. After working briefly at the American Museum of Natural History, she did research at the University of California, Los Angeles; New York University; the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; and the National Institutes of Health, where she was one of very few women in her field.

She considered Haldor Rosvold, who set up the first NIMH lab to study higher cortical function, her mentor.

In 1979, she joined the faculty of the Yale University School of Medicine. The Eugene Higgins Professor of Neuroscience in the neurobiology department, she also held joint appointments in Yale's departments of psychiatry, neurology, and psychology, reflecting the breadth of her thinking.

Weinberger recalls her as "wonderfully dear, unusually warm, thoughtful, and kind. There was a level of decency to her that… is particularly striking in the sciences. She was not on a high horse…not affected like many scientists. She was people-oriented, and it mattered to her that people digested what she had to say. She did the translational thing very well and was an extremely lucid writer."

Clare Bergson, associate professor of pharmacology and toxicology at the Medical College of Georgia, was one of many postdoctoral students whom Goldman-Rakic supported. Bergson also called her "so dear. She was affectionate, caring, critical, and impossible at times. Of course, the science always came first. If I needed something for a grant or a promotion, she was always there, responding immediately. She was the mother of all her students and postdocs." Bergson also recalled Goldman-Rakic as "aware of the politics and the old boys' club and… really trying" to bring along other promising women in her field.

The author and collaborator on hundreds of papers, Goldman-Rakic also won numerous honors and awards. Among them: The Karl Lashley Award from the American Philosophical Society, the Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award from the American Psychological Association, and a Merit Award from NIH. She was also the first woman honored by the Max Planck Institute for Psychiatry with its Emil Kraepelin Professor für Psychiatrie Award, said Bergson.

Goldman-Rakic's husband and colleague in neuroscience, Pasko Rakic, survives her as does one sister, Ruth Rappaport, also a scientist. Another sister, Linda Schoer, predeceased her.

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