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Election Year: 1968
Scientific Discipline: Cellular and Molecular Neuroscience
Membership Type: Member
Rita Levi-Montalcini’s work had a profound impact on the field of neurology, especially the area of neurogenesis. Levi-Montalcini identified a specific nerve growth factor (NGF) responsible for enhanced growth in sympathetic nerve cells. NGF represented a whole new type of control mechanism in cell differentiation. Stanley Cohen, a biochemist, was able to isolate this factor and deduce its chemical structure. The discovery of NGF earned them both the 1986 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.
While studying at the University of Turin, Levi-Montalcini researched rates of nerve cell growth among different tissues. She graduated from the university in 1936 and went on to work as a research assistant for Giuseppe Levi until she was forced into hiding in 1938 by Benito Mussolini's Manifesto of Race, which barred Jewish-Italian citizens from academic and professional careers. While in hiding, she continued her work observing chicken embryos and found chemicals essential to cell growth and nerve networking. In 1946 she accepted an invitation to Washington University in St. Louis to work with Professor Viktor Hamburger; she earned the title of full professor there in 1958. Levi-Montalcini served as the director of various branches within the National Research Council (CRN) in Rome and in 2002 founded the European Brain Research Institute, where she also served as president. In 2001 she was honored with a position as a senator for life within the Italian government.