Patricia Goldman-Rakic

Died after being struck

By a vehicle



The entire BM&L’s staff was shocked by the news. Some BM&L’s members was elaborating a theoretical model characterizing Working Memory as a “Present Basal Psychic Functioning” to submit to her judgment. If Alan Baddeley was considered the most prominent Working Memory expert in the field of Neuropsychology, she was considered the main contributor to the present idea of Working Memory in Neurobiology: her long lasting competence in anatomy and physiology of the frontal lobe, especially in its prefrontal part, was crucial in the investigation about neural correlates of memory-based cognitive processes in primates. Her studies gave scientific support to a more dynamic and complex concept than the obsolete idea of a “Short Term Memory” which implied a static storage of memories. 

BRAIN MIND & LIFE learned the sad news by Albert Aguayo, some days later. Aguayo, secretary general of the International Brain Research Organization, declared: “World neuroscience has lost one of its best leaders. She did so much and would have accomplished so much more". Last July 29th, while crossing a street in Hamden, Conn., she was struck by a vehicle and two days later, July 31st, she died at Yale New Haven Hospital at the age of 66. Married to the renowned neuroscientist Pasko Rakic, she was one of three sisters who all have a Ph.D. in science: Ruth Rapaport is the only one survived, since the other sister, Linda Schoer, predeceased her.

A native of Salem, Massachusetts, Patricia Goldman-Rakic, received a bachelor’s degree cum laude from Vassar College in 1959 and a Ph.D. from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) in 1963, two years later, after working briefly at the American Museum of Natural History, joined the researchers of the National Institute of Mental Health, being involved in the Intramural Research Program. She was a member of the Yale faculty since 1979 and before that conducted research at UCLA, NYU and MIT. Member of the National Academy of Science (1990) she was president of the Society for Neuroscience (1989-1990).

Considered a pioneer in the area of memory function, Goldman-Rakic’s research also paved the way for scientists to understand some important issues in neurobiological basis of normal behaviour and of psychiatric and neurological diseases such as Schizophrenia, Attention Deficit-Hyperactivity Disorder, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Goldman-Rakic brought a unique multidisciplinary approach to the study of the frontal lobe, a region of the brain once viewed as inaccessible to rigorous scientific analysis. She was the first to discover and describe the exquisite order and structure of this brain region, which is responsible for the highest level of cognitive functions.

Among her seminal discoveries was the demonstration that cells in the prefrontal cortex are dedicated to specific memory tasks. Goldman-Rakic’s recent research at Yale focused on the role of signaling molecules and their involvement in a number of brain disorders and cognitive deficits. In the 1970’s, she found that the loss of dopamine in the prefrontal cortex produced profound working memory deficits. This study changed the view of neuropsychiatry, and helped provide a rational basis for understanding the symptoms of mental illness and the effects of psychoactive medications. More recently, she discovered and sought to understand how a brief period of amphetamine abuse in early adolescence or early adulthood can produce long-lasting cognitive deficits.

Her studies of dopamine receptors in the brain have provided important insights into potential treatments for schizophrenia and Parkinson’s disease. For example, she and her colleagues identified the protein Calcyon, which may be a new target for drug development to improve the signaling in cells that are otherwise desensitized to dopamine. This is particularly important because many of the current drugs for these disorders have negative side effects after long-term use.

Reading the obituary wrote by the International Brain Research Organization we found, among awards and honours she received, some we wasn’t aware: the Karl Lashley Award from the American Philosophical Society; the Leiber Award from the National Alliance for Research on Schizophrenia and Depression; Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award from the American Psychological Association; a Merit Award from the National Institute of Mental Health; the Fyssen Foundation Prize in Neuroscience; and the Alden Spencer Award from Columbia University. Moreover, she received honorary degrees from the University of Utrecht, Netherlands, and the University of St. Andrews, Scotland.

We can’t forget that she founded the journal Cerebral Cortex, and many of us recall her signature since she served on editorial boards for the journals Science, Concepts in Neuroscience, Advances in Neuroscience, Biological Psychiatry, Behavioural Brain Research and many others. She also held numerous advisory positions, including at the NIH, the NIMH, the Weitzman Institute, Israel, and other institutions.

Let’s close with the words of Clare Bergson, now associate professor of pharmacology and toxicology at the Medical College of Georgia, and one of many postdoctoral students whom Goldman-Rakic supported: "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."


BM&L-August 2003