A life well-lived: Inspiration from a true scientific activist

In 1986, the Nobel Committee announced that the prize for Physiology and Medicine would go, in part, to a diminutive Jewish-Italian neurobiologist: Dr. Rita Levi-Montalcini; the scientific giant died this past weekend at the age of 103.

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By the time she won the Nobel prize, Dr. Levi-Montalcini had already revolutionized the field of neuroscience. She played a leading role in the discovery of nerve growth factor and other proteins that are used during the development of the nervous system. During development, the cells of the nervous system are initially born, but they must then form connections with one another in very specific ways (the cells in your eye must connect to the vision parts of the brain, but not to the hearing part, while the cells in the ear have the opposite problem). After making these connections, efficient cells and connections are maintained, while useless ones are lost. The molecules that Dr. Levi-Montalcini discovered are required for this process of making and maintaining proper brain connections. With that in mind, the entire field of neuroscience rests on the discoveries she made.

How did she make this discovery? Like any finding of revolutionary importance, it depended upon a whole series of observations. In her case, Dr. Levi-Montalcini was able to observe the nervous system while it was being created by taking advantage of a system where development happens outside of a womb: she studied the embryos inside of chickens’ eggs. Through the study of this accessible animal model system, she found that after cells inside the central nervous system make connections with other tissues, some of those connections are maintained, while others were lost, and that it was a “nutrient” that helped to preserve those that were kept. Only after decades more work did she properly identify what that nutrient was: nerve growth factor.

A chick embryo, exhibiting signs of developing eyes, brain and nervous system

A chick embryo, exhibiting signs of developing eyes, brain and nervous system

Even more inspiring and amazing than her discoveries was the fact that she did this under dark and dangerous circumstances. Only a few years into her studies, she was forced to leave the University where she studied, as anti-Semitism rose under the Italian fascist government. Rather than retreat, she improvised by setting up a laboratory in her living room and obtaining eggs from local farmers. When the importance of her work was recognized, she was invited to the United States where she lived part time, making discovery after discovery.

As I mentioned, there is no aspect of neuroscience untouched by her work. Today, we realize that the formation and maintenance of neural circuits has a profound relevance to understanding the biology of neurodevelopmental disorders, including autism and schizophrenia. When, one day, we have a better insight into the specific dysfunctions in brain that give rise to these behavioral disorders, it will be, in part, because of Dr. Levi-Montalcini’s revolutionary studies of chick embryos.

In every way possible, this woman was a heroine and was the essence of true activism. She pushed the boundaries of understanding and knowledge and advanced the human condition in ways that are difficult to fully appreciate. She did this despite the specter of anti-Semitism and sexism all around her. Where she encountered boundaries and roadblocks, she found solutions and pathways forward. Where she ran into gaps in our knowledge of fundamental biology, she created answers. When she faced the dark face of hatred, she carried on.

Looking back on her life, Dr. Levi-Montalcini suggested that the adversity she experienced in life had made her stronger and more determined to make scientific progress. That is why – on the occasion of the 2009 Pro-Test for Science rally at UCLA – I shared her words with the crowd of biomedical research advocates. On the occasion of her 100th birthday, she said

Above all, don’t fear difficult moments. The best comes from them.

Scientists have faced adversity in many forms: from fascists in the 1920s to animal rights extremists today. Today, we look back on a life well-lived; let us all be inspired by this great activist and know that no road block to science is enough to stop the progress that is required for an expansion of knowledge and for the furtherance of human and animal welfare.

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