Aaron T. Beck, M.D., a 1946 graduate of the School of Medicine who created cognitive therapy and transformed the practice of psychiatry, has received the 2006 Albert Lasker Award for Clinical Medical Research. Sometimes called the “American Nobels,” the Lasker Awards are the nation’s highest honors for contributions to biomedical science.
Freudian psychoanalysis was ascendant when Beck completed his own training as an analyst in 1956, but its influence was counterbalanced by increasing calls to subject psychoanalytic concepts to the rigorous scientific scrutiny applied in other branches of medicine.
Beginning in the late 1950s at the University of Pennsylvania, Beck began a series of studies of core psychoanalytic concepts, such as the idea that depression was caused by unconscious, unexpressed rage toward some individual in a patient’s life. Psychoanalysts held that the target of this anger could be revealed in dreams, and that patients could be relieved of depression through insights gained from analyzing dreams.
In the course of this work, Beck not only found that patients did not have dreams of this sort, but he identified a conscious cause of depression in “automatic thoughts”—persistent, unrealistic feelings of inadequacy that bleakly colored his patients’ moods and undermined their attempts to fully engage with others.
Many similar findings led Beck to abandon psychoanalysis, and by 1964 he had laid the foundations of cognitive therapy, a systematic form of “talk therapy” that aimed to modify the distorted thinking patterns seen in many psychological disorders. Although cognitive therapy was fiercely resisted at first, controlled trials conducted by Beck in the 1970s revealed his techniques to be more effective in treating depression than the antidepressant medications available at the time.
Cognitive therapy is now a mainstay of psychiatric practice around the world for the treatment of an array of psychiatric disorders. It has been shown to be a powerful adjunct to medication in treating the most serious psychological conditions, such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, and it has proved highly effective in preventing suicide among severely depressed patients.
The Lasker Awards were inaugurated in 1946 by the Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation, a philanthropic organization founded by advertising executive Albert Lasker and his wife, Mary, a leading citizen advocate for public funding of biomedical research.
In announcing Beck’s award, Joseph L. Goldstein, M.D., chair of the foundation’s international jury and one of 71 Lasker Award winners to go on to win the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine, said, “The development of cognitive therapy by this year’s Lasker clinical awardee is one of the most important advances—if not the most important advance—in the treatment of these diseases in the last 50 years.”
Two other Lasker awardees for 2006 also have Yale connections.
Joseph G. Gall, Ph.D., whose distinguished 57-year career in cell biology was recognized with the Albert Lasker Award for Special Achievement in Medical Science, earned his undergraduate and graduate degrees at Yale University. Now at the Carnegie Institute of Washington, from 1963 to 1983 Gall was a member of Yale’s Department of Biology, where he invented in situ hybridization, a method to localize specific DNA or RNA sequences in tissue samples that is still widely used in cellular and molecular biology.
One of Gall’s postdoctoral students at Yale during the mid-1970s was Elizabeth Blackburn, Ph.D., now the Morris Herzstein Professor of Biology and Physiology at the University of California–San Francisco.
For her discovery of telomerase, a chromosome-repairing enzyme that plays roles in cancer and aging, Blackburn is one of three recipients of the 2006 Albert Lasker Award for Basic Research.