Women Who Impacted Medicine: Pat Goldman-Rakic

March 31, 2016

Pat Goldman-Rakic: A Neurological Visionary

Before the revolutionary discoveries of Patricia Goldman-Rakic, scientists considered the prefrontal cortex of the brain to be conventionally inaccessible and beyond meaningful research. An innovative thinker, Dr. Goldman-Rakic was able to implement an arsenal of analytical techniques, each of which shed more light on the labyrinth of neurons comprising the frontal lobe.

Through biochemical, electrical, behavioral, and anatomical means, she provided the world of neuroscience with its first comprehensive map of the frontal lobe. This work alone was worthy of international praise, and it was only the groundwork of her research to come.

Pat Goldman-Rakic’s Early Work

Pat Goldman- Rakic was born in 1937 in Salem, MA. Dr. Goldman-Rakic began her academic career at Vasser College, where she obtained a B.A. in neurobiology. In 1963, she earned her Ph.D in developmental psychology from the University of California, Los Angeles, and thereafter moved onto postgraduate research at the National Institute of Mental Health. There, she would demystify the prefrontal cortex, begin identifying specialization of nerve cells and irrevocably impact the future of mental health study.

Particularly, researchers were endowed with a game-changing take on schizophrenia. No longer was the disease shrouded in speculation and uncertainty. The world of schizophrenia research was given a real guide pamphlet for understanding the mechanisms of this illness.

Following her work at NIMH, Dr. Goldman-Rakic spent the remainder of her career as a dedicated researcher and occasional professor at Yale University. She collaborated with a number of brilliant colleagues, for a time focusing on ontogenetic (developmental) aspects of neuroscience.

Early in her research, she was captivated by the plasticity of the nervous system and its astounding ability to repair itself in early stages of life. This fascination would prompt her to conduct studies of cortical connections, in which she used the decade’s most sophisticated biochemical technology to track cell activity. Her experiments revealed components that influenced early neural development—such as gender and age—and she was able to explore the limits of regeneration in the nervous system.

Pat Goldman-Rakic’s Research on Memory

Perhaps most influential of all her accomplishments, Dr. Goldman-Rakic successfully linked the depletion of dopamine in the prefrontal cortex with dissipated memory retention. This discovery would improve our understanding of schizophrenia as well as Parkinson’s disease—both of which are pivotal on abnormal dopamine activity in the brain.

Her research on memory itself delved even more in depth. Prefrontal cells of the brain—that were formerly indistinguishable to scientists—were found to be responsible for different memory tasks. Dr. Goldman-Rakic is to thank for our modern concepts of “long-term” and “short-term” memory, and her understanding of “working” memory inspired new approaches for analyzing mental disorders and memory loss.

Pat Goldman-Rakic’s Achievements

Patricia Goldman-Rakic is known for having published over three-hundred academic articles and having co-edited three books. Her research garnered several accolades from various universities and neuroscience communities, and many awards today are honored by her namesake. Vasser College even inducted her into its hall of fame. Even with such praise, colleagues and other individuals who knew her describe her as a humble, soft-spoken person.

As a girl, Goldman-Rakic never suspected she would become a scientist, much less pave the way for effective treatment of multiple mental conditions—such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s disease, schizophrenia and attention deficit disorders. Memories of her illustrate a kind, loving heart, a fierce determination and a mind filled to its brim with brilliant ingenuity. Dr. Goldman-Rakic was a pioneer for the scientific community as a whole, but she was also a startling inspiration for bright young women everywhere.

In the year 2003, at the height of her academic career, Dr. Goldman-Rakic was severely injured while crossing a street near her home in Connecticut. Three days after, she passed away due to complications. Her research has left a profound impact on neuroscience as we understand it today, and while the scientific community continues to mourn her absence, her work has been integral to modern medical treatment.

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OB-GYN Women’s Centre of Lakewood Ranch celebrates Women’s History Month by acknowledging the women whose visions and efforts have profoundly impacted medical research. Pat Goldman-Rakic is one such astounding mind; having pioneered neuroscience, memory study and mental health research of the 1960s.