Rita Levi-Montalcini

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Rita Levi-Montalcini

World War Two-1938: Leading up to WWII, the Italian government took away some of the rights of its Jewish citizens (including Levi-Montalcini) such as excercising a profession, attending school, and belonging to state institutions, making it illegal for her to research at the university (see speech bubble).-Early 1939: Levi-Montalcini moved to Brussels, Belgium to continue her research.-1939: In the pre-war chaos, she began to fear for the safety of her family, so Levi-Montalcini returned home.-Sept. 1939: Soon after her return, WWII began. She says: "I immediately found a way to establish a laboratory in my bedroom." (see speech bubble)-1942: Levi-Montalcini's family moved to the countryside for safety. During this time, she obtained chick embryos to study by telling farmers she needed eggs for her children (though she had none).

EducationLevi-Montalcini was enrolled in an all girl school through high school. However, her high school had no science classes and was an educational dead-end, as it prepared her for marriage, not university. This proved to be a problem when, after her governess died from cancer, she decided to become a doctor. After convincing her father to allow her to attend medical school, she had to study with a tutor to learn the science, Greek, and Latin she had missed in high school. In 1930 Levi-Montalcini enrolled in the Turin School of Medicine, having recieved some of the best marks on the qualifying exam. She studied the nervous system for her doctoral thesis and got her degree in 1936. She continued to work at the university, observing the development of the nervous system of chick embryos.

By Jerica Tan

Rita Levi-Montalcini

Born: 1909

Died: December 30, 2012

ChildhoodRita Levi-Montalcini was born in Turin, Italy in 1909. She was of Jewish heritage, but her father did not practice and she considered herself a freethinker. In her family and the society she was raised in, women were not encouraged to be educated or persue careers. Her father was a businessman, while her mother was a homemaker. Levi-Montalcini would have to fight to gain the education needed to persue science.

In 1986, Levi-Montalcini won the nobel prize with biochemist Stanley Cohen for discovering nerve growth factor (NGF)

An interview with Rita Levi-Montalcini

As Levi-Montalcini was finishing her education, anti-Semitism was on the rise, Mussolini signed an alliance with Hitler, and Europe was preparing to enter WWII

Vocab1) Nerve Growth Factor (NGF): A protein that promotes the growth, organization, and maintenance of sympathetic and some sensory nerve cells.2) Autonomic Nervous System: The part of the nervous system that is not under conscience control and regulates the internal organs. Composed of sympathetic and parasympathetic neurons that work opposite each other to maintain homeostasis (i.e. dialating and contracting blood vessels).3) In Vitro: Experimenting with cells in test tubes, petri dishes etc., making an experiment more easily controlled and less expensive (just begining to be used in Levi-Montalcini's day).4) In Vivo: Experimenting with/in live animals.5) Ganglion: A cluster of nerve cells.

Rita Levi-Montalcini

Supposedly after 1938 Levi-Montalcini's colleagues were willing to let her continue to work at the university, but she declined, concerned for their safety.

Each time bombs of the war fell, LM would have to move her entire lab to the protection of the basement.

(2) Levi-Montalcini discovers that a chemical triggers sympathetic nerve growthThe scientist's findings of a tumor producing nerve growth interested Rita Levi-Montalcini, who began to preform further studies using the tumor. She found that the tumor caused an extraordinary increase in the growth of sympathetic nerves (see Vocab). She hypothesized that something was being released from the tumor instigated the nerve growth. Levi-Montalcini tested this by placing the tumor on the respiratory membrane of a chick embryo, where it would not be in direct contact with the embryo, but would be sharing the same blood supply. The hypothesis was supported when the tumor still caused an especially large amount of sympathetic nerve growth. Levi-Montalcini then knew that some chemical initiated sympathetic nerve growth, and had one source of the chemical. The next step was isolating the substance for further testing.

(3) Levi-Montalcini joins with Cohen to isolate NGFIn order to isolate the chemical that was causing the sympathetic nerve growth, Levi-Montalcini joined with biochemist Stanley Cohen, who also worked at Washington University. This was the first time biochemistry was applied to the workings of the brain and the nervous system. It was part of a societal shift from thinking of the brain as the home of one's conscience, to a series of biochemical processes. This meant that mental illnesses are caused by biochemical imbalances and could be treated with drugs.The identity of the nerve-inducing substance had been narrowed down to either a protein or nucleic acids. To determine which, Cohen and Levi-Montalcini added snake venom to the chemical and the sympathetic nerve fibers it was inducing. The snake venom had a high concentration of a nucleic acid-degrading substance. If a nucleic acid was prompting the nerve growth, it should be eliminated by the venom, making the fibers not grow. However, when the venom was added, an even larger halo of nerve fibers grew. To their surprise, the snake venom had an even higher concentration of the nerve-inducing chemical than the tumor! Cohen was then able to identify the protein (nerve growth factor) in the venom that was prompting the sympathetic nerve growth. Cohen finally isolated nerve growth factor from mouse salivary glands (which had NGF ten times more active than the NGF in snake venom). He was also able to produce an antibody to NGF. The antibody would be extremely useful in further studying the effects of NGF.

Levi-Montalcini's research found that NGF......is required for the survival and growth of sympathetic neurons....increases the number of nerve fibers by preventing unused neurons from dying....guides developing nerves to their target by attracting neurons to the closest area with the highest concentration of NGF....increases the rate of the differentiation of neurons....acts the same in all mammals.

In 1946, Levi-Montalcini left Italy to continue her research on nerve development in the U.S. at Washington University in St. Louis.

The Science behind Discovering NGF

Chick embryo

(1) Scientists began to study the development of the nervous systemFor the first time, technology had developed enough to allow scientists to study the brain and the nervous system. Embryology, better microscopes, and in vitro experiments (see Vocab) represent some technological developments. One of the questions of the day was what drove nerves to grow,develop, and differentiate in the ways they did. The three most common ideas were that nerve cells followed a preprogrammed genetic code, that nerve fibers formed through a process of trial and error in which nerves that don't make valid connections die, and that the nervous system forms through a combination of genetic and outside factors. Scientists began to test how the nervous system responds to outside factors, and demonstrated that a developing nervous system is surprisingly flexible. For example, one scientist showed that amphibians can grow nerves into limb grafts from another species! Another scientist tested how three types of tumors triggered nerve growth. He found that, of the three, one prompted nerve growth in a chick embryo.

How does the nervous system develop? What tells nerves where to grow?

Stanley Cohen

Nervous system

NGF causes the growth of a halo of nerve fibers


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