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Woman Crush Wednesday: Patricia Goldman-Rakic

Patricia Goldman-Rakic was an instrumental part of understanding the human brain, specifically the prefrontal cortex. Her work and discoveries truly changed the way we think about, study and treat the brain. 

Born and raised in Massachusetts, Patricia was fond of the New England region of the United States. She was born in Salem, MA and moved to Peabody, MA with her family in the late 1930s, where she spent most of her childhood. Here she attended high school with her twin and older sister. After she graduated, she headed off to Vassar College in New York where she studied experimental psychology and graduated with her BA in Neurobiology in 1959. 

Wanting to further her education, she attended UCLA in Los Angeles, CA where she earned her PhD in developmental psychology in 1963. Her doctoral dissertation focused on the connections between stress and cognitive development. This was where her interest sparked in studying brain development and behavior, which she studied for her entire career. 

After receiving her doctorate she started her research at the National Institute of Mental Health where she worked from 1965-1979. During her time at the Institute she became Chief of Developmental Neurobiology and developed a biological map of the brain’s frontal lobe. At this time, it was believed that the prefrontal cortex was inaccessible and unable to be fully studied. She discovered that the prefrontal cortex was made up of specialized nerve cells that arranged into columns and served to perform specific memory tasks. This research led to a deeper insight of how the brain operates, as well as a better understanding of mental illnesses like schizophrenia, ADHD, Parkinsons, and Alzheimer’s disease. In the 70’s she also began a study on how dopamine levels in the prefrontal cortex affect memory. Her study and findings helped to advance neuropsychiatry in a way that gave important insights into treatments for schizophrenia and parkinson’s disease. 

During this time period in her life, Dr. Goldman also spent a year at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she investigated techniques that would be able to expand her research. While at MIT she met her husband, Pasko Rakic and they got married in 1979. 

After their wedding, the couple moved to New Haven, CT where they spent the rest of their lives. Dr. Goldman-Rakic became the head of the Section of Neurobiology at Yale University where she became one of the first female tenured professors. Here she continued her work and collaborated with other researchers to run studies on neuro-chemical development. This work helped to improve the treatment and understanding of schizophrenia and parkinson’s disease. It also led to the development of her theory on working memory and its connection to memory loss, schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s disease. 

Although all of her working career was based at NIMH and Yale, she also published more than 300 scholarly articles, co-wrote three books and founded and co-edited the journal Cerebral Cortex with her husband.

Although she was tragically taken from this world in 2003, Dr. Goldman-Rakic was described as “one of the most distinguished neuroscientists of her time.” by Yale University President Richard Levin. This was no small complement as she received many awards, inductions, and honorary doctorates during her career. Some of these included the Alden Spencer Award from Columbia University, the Fyssen Prize in Neuroscience, the Lieber Prize from the Brain and Behavior Research Foundation, and the Gerard Prize from the Society for Neuroscience, where she was president from 1989-1990. She was inducted into the National Academy of Sciences in 1990, the National Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Institute of Medicine and Vassar College Women in Science Hall of Fame. She received honorary doctorates from the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands and the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. She also has several awards now given in her honor. 

Dr. Patricia Goldman-Rakic was a world renown neuroscientist and a pioneer of the study of memory function. Our understanding of the brain, mental illness and treatment for neurological disorders would not be what it is today without her work and for that we are ever grateful and excited to celebrate her life.

If you would like to learn more about Patricia Goldman-Rakic, our information was sourced from Connecticut Women’s Hall of Fame and Yale.