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NLM 'Profiles' Web Site Adds Axelrod Papers

The accomplishments of some of the giants of 20th century biomedicine are newly available as the National Library of Medicine makes the scientists' archival collections available through the latest digital technology on its "Profiles in Science" web site.

Launched in 1998, "Profiles" contains the personal collections that scientists have donated to NLM and features published and unpublished items including books, journal volumes, pamphlets, diaries, letters, manuscripts, photographs, audiotapes, video clips and other materials.

The most recent addition to the archive is pharmacologist and neuroscientist Julius Axelrod, who shared the 1970 Nobel Prize for discoveries "concerning the humoral transmittors in the nerve terminals and the mechanism for their storage, release and inactivation." Axelrod spent his most fruitful years of research at NIH, first at the (then) National Heart Institute and later at the National Institute of Mental Health.

Dr. Julius Axelrod

According to a recent ABC News poll, one of every eight adults in the United States has taken Prozac or a similar drug to help relieve anxiety or depression. That they can do so is the result of research by Axelrod in the 1960's. His work enabled pharmaceutical firms to create anti-depressants like Prozac. Prozac and other similar drugs are called SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) because they prevent certain actions of chemicals, called neurotransmitters, in the brain.

"Axelrod did not invent Prozac, but he discovered how early antidepressant drugs work in the brain, and he coined the term 'reuptake' to describe those actions," said Dr. Alexa McCray, who directs the "Profiles in Science" project at NLM.

Since his discovery in the early 1960's, Axelrod's explanation for how neurotransmitters work has forever altered the way modern pharmaceutical companies design antidepressant drugs. Furthermore, his work has greatly advanced how scientists understand the biological basis of human behavior. Axelrod was awarded the 1970 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine along with Sir Bernard Katz of University College London and Dr. Ulf von Euler of the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm.

Axelrod also helped to discover the pain-relieving medicine acetaminophen, better known by its brand name, Tylenol. He was one of the first scientists to conduct full studies of caffeine, amphetamine and mescaline. Until his retirement in 1984, he worked on research projects that sought to elucidate the relationship between drugs and behavior.

His research suggested that mental states were the result of complicated physiology and brain chemistry, rather than the sole result of psychological or environmental factors. This ushered in an era of pharmacological drugs that were designed to inhibit or stimulate neurotransmitters in the nervous system.

The new "Profiles" site shows off a variety of documents and includes materials that span the various phases of Axelrod's life and career. These include examples from his extensive collection of laboratory notebooks showing his early experiments involving caffeine and LSD, an unpublished manuscript from 1994, and a large sampling of his most important published articles.

Axelrod, known to friends as "Julie," still comes to the lab about three times a week to conduct research, according to Dr. Michael J. Brownstein, chief, Laboratory of Genetics, NIMH/NHGRI. His contributions are still felt among his colleagues. As Brownstein recounts, "He has a greater capacity than most scientists to take pleasure in other people's novel findings and to suggest followup experiments."

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This story appeared in the June 27, 2000 issue of The NIH Record