Julius Axelrod, a National Institutes of Health neuroscientist who won the Nobel Prize for his work on how nerve cells communicate and affect behavior, has died. He was 92.
He died Dec. 29 at his home in Rockville.
Axelrod shared the 1970 Nobel in physiology or medicine with two other scientists, Bernard Katz of Britain and Ulf von Euler of Sweden. Their work on chemicals released by nerve endings formed the foundation for a host of new antidepressants in the class of Prozac and Zoloft.
Earlier in his career, Axelrod helped identify acetaminophen, used in the pain reliever Tylenol.
“His contributions to pharmacology, especially in terms of how drugs act in the brain, were extraordinary,” Dr. Solomon Snyder, director of the neuroscience department at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, told The New York Times.
The son of Jewish immigrants from Poland, Axelrod was born May 30, 1912, in New York. He graduated from City College of New York in 1933 and hoped to become a doctor but was rejected by several medical schools because of strict quotas on Jews.
He earned a master’s degree in chemistry from New York University in 1941 and a doctorate in pharmacology from George Washington University in 1955.
Axelrod worked with drug researcher Bernard Brodie at Goldwater Memorial Hospital in New York in the 1940s, studying pain medicines. The two found that acetaminophen was the active ingredient in a then-common headache treatment.
In 1955, Axelrod joined the NIH as head of the pharmacology division, where he worked on neurotransmitters, chemicals passed between nerve cells in the brain. At the time, scientists believed that neurotransmitters were broken down after being released by nerve cells. But Axelrod discovered some were pumped back into the cells that produced them.
Blocking the return of those neurotransmitters became the basis for a generation of anti-depressant drugs.
Axelrod retired from NIH in 1984 but continued to work on projects at the research center.