“We’re never going to understand all the molecules necessary for an entire behavior,” says Marina Picciotto, Ph.D., the Charles B.G. Murphy Professor of Psychiatry and professor of neurobiology and pharmacology, of her work on the molecular underpinnings of tobacco and alcohol abuse, depression, and eating behaviors. “But the overall philosophy—that you can say something meaningful about molecules in the brain that can inform how we think about the molecular basis of behavior—that’s something that’s approachable, and it’s worth doing.”
The molecules that have attracted most of Picciotto’s interest are nicotinic acetylcholine receptors (nAChRs), proteins embedded in nerve cell membranes that are activated by the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, but also respond to chemicals like nicotine. In addition to a fundamental involvement in tobacco addiction, nAChRs have been implicated in Alzheimer’s disease and in the dysfunctional sensory processing seen in schizophrenia.
Her scientific achievements and their relevance to human health received major recognition this October with her election to the Institute of Medicine (IOM), the arm of the National Academies that provides science-based advice on medicine and health to policymakers, professionals, and the public at large.
“Marina has made important strides in the area of nicotine addiction research, and her contributions to our understanding of the many roles played by nicotinic acetylcholine receptors have been seminal,” says Robert J. Alpern, M.D., dean and Ensign Professor of Medicine. “She’s a world-class scientist, and I couldn’t be prouder of her election to the Institute of Medicine.”
Picciotto began studying nAChRs as a postdoctoral fellow in the lab of Jean-Pierre Changeux, Ph.D., at the Institut Pasteur in Paris, France, and she describes these beginnings the way many describe their first cigarette: “Once I started,” she says, “I was hooked.”
Picciotto has also done important studies of nicotine exposure during gestation and adolescence and its effects on learning and memory, and of the neuropeptide galanin, which modulates ACh release and may exert a protective effect against addiction to drugs of abuse such as cocaine, amphetamines, and opiates.
Picciotto received her undergraduate degree in biological sciences from Stanford University in 1985, and a Ph.D. in molecular neurobiology in 1992 from The Rockefeller University in New York City, where she worked in the Laboratory of Molecular and Cellular Neuroscience under Paul Greengard, Ph.D.
She became a member of the Yale faculty in 1995.
Also vice chair for basic science research in the Department of Psychiatry and associate director of the School of Medicine’s Medical Scientist Training Program (informally known as the M.D./Ph.D. Program), Picciotto serves on the National Advisory Council of the National Institute on Drug Abuse. In 2000 she was awarded the Presidential Early Career Award in Science and Engineering by President Clinton, and in 2007 she was honored with the Jacob P. Waletzky Award by the Society for Neuroscience.
The IOM, established in 1970 by the National Academy of Sciences, is a national resource for independent, scientifically informed analyses and recommendations on issues related to human health. Those elected to the institute are judged to have made significant contributions to the advancement of medical science, health care, and public health, and election is considered one of the highest honors in the health sciences.