Neurobiologist Paul Greengard Dies
Neurobiologist Paul Greengard Dies

Neurobiologist Paul Greengard Dies

The Nobel laureate revolutionized our understanding of how brain cells communicate.

Apr 15, 2019
Ashley Yeager

ABOVE: ROCKEFELLER UNIVERSITY, PIOTR REDLINKSKI

Nobel laureate Paul Greengard, a neurobiologist at Rockefeller University, died Saturday (April 13). He was 93.

Greengard is best known for his work showing that the brain not only communicates with electrical signals but also with chemicals such as dopamine. His studies investigating how cells respond to dopamine provided the evidence needed to develop antipsychotic drugs that regulate the strength of chemical signals in the brain, according to The New York Times.

“Paul was an iconic scientist whose extraordinary seven-decade career transformed our understanding of neuroscience,” Richard Lifton, Rockefeller’s president, says in a statement. “His discoveries laid out a new paradigm requiring the understanding of the biochemistry of nerve cells rather than simply their electrical activities. This work has had great impact. Today, abnormalities in signaling among neurons are recognized to underlie many neurologic and psychiatric disorders including Parkinson’s disease, schizophrenia, depression, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and substance abuse.”

Greengard was also a fierce advocate for women in science.

See “What Women Need to Succeed in Science

Greengard was born in Brooklyn in 1925. His mother died giving birth to him. Thirteen months later, his father remarried a woman who raised him as her own. Greengard attended public schools in the boroughs of New York City and after graduating high school enlisted in the Navy. He became an electronic technician and was sent to MIT to work with a research team to develop a radar system to warn American ships in the Pacific from incoming Japanese kamikaze airplanes during World War II.

Once his military service was complete, Greengard used the GI bill to attend Hamilton College in Clinton, New York, and studied physics and mathematics. It was while filling out some forms that he learned of his mother’s death during his birth—a revelation that affected him deeply. 

Greengard graduated in 1948 and decided to attend graduate school. He considered studying theoretical physics but nuclear weapons were at the forefront of the field at the time, and Greengard did not want to work on them. “I thought there were better ways of spending my life than trying to destroy mankind,” he told an interviewer for the Journal of Clinical Investigation in 2013. Instead, he chose to study biophysics at Johns Hopkins University, graduated in 1953, and then went on to complete postdocs at the University of London, the University of Cambridge, and the National Institute for Medical Research. 

After a stint directing the department of biochemistry in the research laboratory of the pharmaceutical giant Geigy (now Novartis), Greengard moved to Nashville for a brief period to teach at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. While he was there, he worked with Earl Sutherland, Jr., who was studying chemical signaling in fat and muscle cells in response to messages from hormones. The work made Greengard wonder if similar signaling took place in the brain.

He started to work on the question but “[n]o one was terribly interested—it wasn’t ready for prime time,” Greengard told the Times in an interview in 2000. “People said, ‘Poor Paul, I’m sure he’ll find his way back onto the right path.’”

Still, he persisted, and from the 1960s to the 1980s (he joined Rockefeller in 1983), he probed the chemical signaling of the brain. He ultimately showed that the brain’s signaling relies on both chemical and electrical signals. The work eventually won Greengard a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2000, which he shared with neuroscientists Arvid Carlsson and Eric Kandel. Collectively, their work delved into the ways brain cells communicate and offered new insight into treating drug addiction, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and Parkinson’s disease.

Greengard used his Nobel prize money to establish an award to recognize women doing outstanding biomedical research. He named the prize after his birth mother. “Drawing attention to the achievements of women working in science sets a powerful example for those women still dreaming of their own success,” Greengard and Baylor College of Medicine professor Huda Zoghbi wrote in The Scientist in 2014.

Surviving Greengard are his wife Ursula von Rydingsvard, his children Claude and Leslie Greengard and Ursula Anne von Rydingsvard, his sister Linda Greengard, and six grandchildren.