Rediscover STEAM
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Rediscover STEAM

Patricia Goldman-Rakic, Neuroscientist & Pioneer in Prefrontal Cortex Reserach

Patricia Goldman-Rakic was born in Salem, Massachusetts to Irving Shoer, the son of two Latvian immigrants, and Jenny Pearl, a Russian immigrant. She had two sisters, identical twins Dr. Ruth Rappaport and Dr. Linda Faith Schoer. Patricia was always described as a humble, soft-spoken person and went on to conduct groundbreaking research regarding the prefrontal cortex, which allowed scientists to probe into the neurological mechanisms of regular human behaviour as well as mental disorders such as schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s disease.

Goldman-Rakic attended Peabody High School in Peabody, Massachusetts and went on to attend Vassar College, where she earned a bachelor’s degree cum laude in Neurobiology in 1959. In 1963, she earned her doctorate in experimental Developmental Psychology from the University of California at Los Angeles.

In the mid-1960s, Goldman-Rakic went on to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH)s, where she worked with the renowned cognitive neuroscientist Haldor Rosvold. Rosvold established a laboratory at NIMH studying the higher function of the cortex and the complex aspects of behaviour. Goldman-Rakic adopted a non-human primate to model the human system after realizing the organism’s systems and cells can be manipulated to research the fundamental biological substrates contributing to memory. These studies demonstrated the ability for the working memory to make an effective recovery if injury to the frontal cortex occurs early in life. However, injuries impact the patient much more seriously when the patient is post-adolescent. This was ground-breaking information as before only recovery and reorganisation in early life were thoroughly discussed.

From these studies, Goldman-Rakic’s interest in the columnar organization of the cortex grew. Previous work from the Nobel Prize-winning research of David Hubel and Torsten Wiesel confirmed the cortices role in basic sensory reception with the cortex’ anatomy consisting of functionally similar neurons grouped in vertical columns. Goldman-Rakic discovered this applied to the frontal cortex as well. Her laboratory produced evidence of a conserved organization of the neocortex in 1980. It showed parallel streams of information flowing across cortical areas and subcortically through the basal ganglia to effector regions. In the late 1980s and 1990s, focus shifted from defining this circuitry to discovering the mechanisms of these circuits, which included using complex neurophysiological approaches to monitor neuronal activity during the process of a working-memory exercise.

When conducting oculomotor delayed-response task tests on animals, Goldman-Rakic and her team saw an impressive profile of the neuronal activity for the various populations during different phases of the behaviour trials. Certain neurons fired explicitly during the planning stage, stage of delay, and stage of completion in a consistent pattern. This led to the hypothesis that neurons in the dorsal and lateral prefrontal cortex complete components of the overall process of the working-memory task with different neurons taking on different responsibilities based on their columnar positions in the neocortex. Goldman-Rakic also theorised the existence of memory fields in the prefrontal cortex.

Her most recent work consisted of detailed analysis of the organisation of neurotransmitter systems from inputs to receptors. She was particularly drawn to the dopamine feedback loop due to its correlation to neuropsychiatric disorders and their corresponding drug therapies, as well as the influence of this hormone on the memory system’s functional state in general. Goldman-Rakic integrated her collections of data on molecular, cellular, and neuroanatomical domains to fully understand the frontal circuitry which governs working memory.

Achievements

  • Vassar College: hall of fame in her honour [3]
  • 1989 — elected president of the Society for Neuroscience
  • 1990 — elected to National Academy of Sciences (US), France’s Fyssen Prize in Neuroscience, Merit Award of NIMH
  • 1991 — American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Lieber Award for the National Alliance for Research on Schizophrenia and Depression
  • 1994 — Institute of Medicine and National Academy of Sciences
  • 1996 — Karl Lashley Award of American Philosophical Society
  • 2000 — awarded ‘doctor honoris causa’ University of Utrecht
  • 2002 — Gerard Award of the Society for Neuroscience, Gold Medal for Distinguished Scientific Contributions from the American Psychological Association
  • 2003 — Honorary Degree from St. Andrews College of the University of Edinburgh [1]

Patricia Goldman-Rakic passed away at age 66 at the Yale-New Haven Hospital. As she was crossing a heavily-trafficked street in Hamden, Connecticut, she was struck by a car and passed away that night. Many scientists mourned her death and voiced their respect for her character and monumental research.

Today, Goldman-Rakic is renowned for making a connection between the prefrontal cortex and columnar arrangement of short-term memory. This countered previous theories that stated memory is a single process located in one location in the brain, using the term ‘working memory’ and ‘representational memory’ to refer to these cells’ functions. She also identified the different processing streams for different modalities of memory (e.g. auditory, spatial).

Goldman-Rakic also researched the plasticity of the brain and found it was fairly fluid early in development and slowly became rigid with age. She published more than 250 seminal articles and with her husband Pasko Rakic, founded the journal Cerebral Cortex with an impact factor of 5.043 (with the average being ~1). [7]

by Charlotte Wong

References

1. Aghajanian, George et al. (2003) Patricia Goldman Rakic, 1937–2003. Neuropsychopharmacology, 28(12), 2218–2220. doi: https://doi.org/10.1038/sj.npp.1300325. ISSN 1740–634X.

2. McFadden, Robert D. (2003) Patricia S. Goldman-Rakic, Neuroscientist, Dies at 66. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2003/08/04/nyregion/patricia-s-goldman-rakic-neuroscientist-dies-at-66.html.

3. (2016) Pat Goldman-Rakic: A Neurological Visionary. Woman Who Impacted Medicine. https://obgynwc.com/women-who-impacted-medicine-pat-goldman-rakic-2/.

4. (2020) Dr. Lawrence Goldman Award in Physiology. University of Maryland School of Medicine. https://medschool-umaryland.networkforgood.com/projects/53068-department-of-physiology-dr-lawrence-goldman-award-in-physiology.

5. Gale, Thomas. (2002) Patricia Goldman-Rakic. Gale Group, 4. http://galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/BioRC.

6. Levitt, Pat. (2003) Patricia Goldman-Rakic. PLoS Biology, 1(2), 38. doi: 10.1371/journal.pbio.0000038.

7. (2021) Goldman-Rakic, Patricia Shoer. encyclopedia.com. https://www.encyclopedia.com/science/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/goldman-rakic-patricia-shoer.

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Rediscover STEAM sheds light on the stories of underrepresented women throughout history and aims to empower the next generation of female change-makers.

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