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U-M researcher receives top scientific honor

Dr. Huda Akil elected to National Academy of Sciences for her pioneering work on the biology of emotions

Huda Akil, Ph.D., Co-Director of the University of Michigan’s Molecular & Behavioral Neuroscience Institute and Gardner C. Quarton Distinguished Professor of Neurosciences in the Department of Psychiatry at the U-M Medical School, has been elected a member of the National Academy of Sciences, one of the highest honors attainable by an American scientist.

Akil’s research is aimed at understanding mechanisms of our emotions, including the brain biology of pain, stress, substance abuse and depression. She demonstrated that the brain has an intrinsic ability to actively block pain and was the first to implicate endorphins in the process. Early on, she translated this knowledge to practical applications, demonstrating that deep brain stimulation relieves intractable pain in humans by releasing endorphins. She and her colleagues elaborated the role of endorphins and related neuropeptides in brain function using a combination of molecular, anatomical and behavioral tools.

Akil's current research investigates the genetic, molecular and neural mechanisms underlying stress, addiction and mood disorders. Along with Stanley J. Watson, M.D., Ph.D., she co-directs the University of Michigan node of the Pritzker Neuropsychiatric Research Consortium. This consortium is engaged in large-scale studies to discover new genes and proteins that cause vulnerability to major depression, bipolar illness and schizophrenia.

“We are delighted that Dr. Akil’s work has been recognized with this prestigious honor,” says James O. Woolliscroft, M.D., Dean of the U-M Medical School and Lyle C. Roll Professor of Medicine. “As the fourth faculty member from the U-M Medical School to receive this recognition, her election to the National Academy of Sciences is a distinction in which Dr. Akil, her colleagues and the entire U-M community should take great pride.”

Gregory Dalack, M.D., chair of U-M’s Department of Psychiatry echoes those sentiments.

“Dr. Akil is an outstanding scientist, colleague and mentor,” Dalack says. “She is an extraordinary thinker whose seminal contributions to our understanding of stress reactivity and the neurobiology of emotions have had profound implications for our understanding of mood and substance use disorders. Her election to the National Academy of Sciences is well-deserved recognition of her leadership in neuroscience and the broader scientific community.”

For Akil, election to the academy is a chance to more widely share her research.

“Neuroscience research is intrinsically multidisciplinary and collaborative,” says Akil. “This honor is shared with my lifelong collaborator, Dr. Stanley J. Watson, with our students and postdoctoral fellows, past and current, as well as many wonderful colleagues and collaborators. The challenges of understanding the brain are immense, but the journey is thrilling and the best is yet to come!”

Akil received a Ph.D. in Psychobiology from the University of California, Los Angeles and pursued her postdoctoral training at Stanford University. She also holds a Master’s degree in Psycholinguistics from the American University of Beirut. Akil joined the U-M faculty in 1978.

She will be inducted into the Academy next April during its 149th annual meeting in Washington, D.C.

Akil, elected along with 71 others, brings the number of U-M faculty elected to the National Academy of Sciences to 25.

Among the Academy's renowned members are Albert Einstein, Robert Oppenheimer, Thomas Edison, Orville Wright, and Alexander Graham Bell. Over 180 living Academy members have won Nobel Prizes.

The National Academy of Sciences is a private, nonprofit honorific society of distinguished scholars engaged in scientific and engineering research, dedicated to the furthering science and technology and to their use for the general welfare. Established in 1863, the National Academy of Sciences has served to "investigate, examine, experiment, and report upon any subject of science or art" whenever called upon to do so by any department of the government.

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