Patricia Goldman-Rakic, PhD
Her Research Unraveled Mysteries of Brain & Memory Function
It would be nearly impossible to exaggerate the impact Patricia Goldman-Rakic has had on the understanding of the human mind, and on the development of the field of neuroscience. Born in 1937 in Massachusetts, Goldman-Rakic was one of three daughters, all of whom eventually pursued a career in science.
Patricia Goldman-Rakic graduated from Vassar in 1959 with a B.A. in neurobiology. After Vassar, she earned her doctorate in neuropsychology from the University of California at Los Angeles, and later went on to a post-doctoral appointment at the Museum of Natural History in New York City. In 1965 she was offered a fellowship at the National Institute of Mental Health, where, quite contradictory to what the rest of the neuroscientific community was doing, she began working on unraveling the mysteries of the frontal and prefrontal cortices.
During her time at the NIMH (1965-1979) Goldman-Rakic developed a first of its kind biological map of the brain’s frontal lobe. Until her groundbreaking research, it was believed that the prefrontal cortex was inaccessible and unable to be studied with conventional scientific methods. Because of the complex interconnections of the prefrontal cortex, most neuroscientists held the belief that it was too complex to ever fully understand. Furthermore, most underestimated the importance of the prefrontal cortex to human intelligence and behavior. Goldman-Rakic, however, understood early on that the unique nature of the prefrontal cortex in the higher primates perhaps held the key to understanding the biology behind the human mind, and she was not afraid to take on the seemingly impossible.
The prefrontal cortex is essential for the higher level processing of motor control, and for planning and executing complex behaviors, especially those that require the use of an integrative working memory mechanism. Goldman-Rakic discovered that the prefrontal cortex is much more than a confused mass of firing nerve cells and that it is instead made up of highly specialized nerve cells arranged in columns. Her findings were pivotal to scientists’ understanding of how the brain operates and led to improved understanding of schizophrenia, among other mental illnesses.
During her time at the NIMH, she spent a year at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology investigating techniques that would expand her own lab’s research capabilities. It was during this year at MIT that she met Pasko Rakic, whom she married in 1979. The couple moved to New Haven, CT where he became head of the newly formed Section of Neurobiology at Yale University. Goldman-Rakic would spend the rest of her career at Yale, continuing her pioneering research and expanding its multi-disciplinary reach. She collaborated with other notable researchers to run detailed studies of neuro-chemical development, and the results helped pave the way for improved understanding and treatment of both schizophrenia and Parkinson’s disease, among others.
In the early 1990s, Dr. Goldman-Rakic and her colleagues were able to map the memory fields of the prefrontal cortex as modules arrayed in columns, suggesting an active memory system therein. This discovery went against the long-held belief that memory had a single locus in the brain. From there, she investigated whether circuits defined function at the cellular level. She also identified delay-related activity as the cellular basis for working memory.
As part of her research, she discovered that cells in the prefrontal cortex are dedicated to specific memory tasks. This led to her development of a theory of working memory, which she also applied to studies of memory loss, schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s disease, and other illnesses. Her work led to new ways of thinking about brain disorders and development.
“Working memory provides … the temporal and spatial continuity between our past experience and present actions,” she wrote. “Working memory has been invoked in all forms of cognitive and linguistic processing and is fundamental to both the comprehension and construction of sentences. It is essential to the operations of mental arithmetic, to playing chess … to fantasizing and planning ahead.”
In addition to her research, Goldman-Rakic was a prolific writer, publishing more than 300 scholarly articles and co-editing three books. With her husband, she founded and co-edited the journal Cerebral Cortex. She was the recipient of numerous awards; was inducted into the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Institute of Medicine, and the Vassar College Women in Science Hall of Fame. In honor of her immense contributions to the field of neuroscience, several awards are now given in her name.
Though she once told a friend she was unsure if she would be able to “make it in a man’s world,” Goldman-Rakic more than proved that she could. Her pioneering research opened up the field of neuroscience and provided invaluable insight into the functioning of the human brain. Because of her work, innumerable lives have been changed as scientists have been better able to understand brain disorders ranging from schizophrenia to attention-deficit-hyperactivity disorder, and Alzheimer’s disease.
Patricia Goldman-Rakic died on July 31, 2003, three days after being struck by a car as she crossed a busy street near her New Haven home. Her loss was mourned by the scientific community at large, but her pioneering work lives on in the continued research of new generations of scientists.