Rita Levi-Montalcini

Rita Levi-Montalcini

Nancy Wilkinson finds out more about this neurologist, who jointly won the Nobel Prize in Medicine for discoveries of growth factors

The only Nobel Prize winner to reach 100 years old is a neuroscientist called Rita Levi-Montalcini. She was born in 1909 in Turin, Italy, making her 103 when she passed away on 30 December 2012. She was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1986.

Levi-Montalcini, along with her colleague Stephen Cohen, discovered a protein called nerve growth factor (NGF). NGF is important for the growth, maintenance and survival of nerve cells (neurons). NGF has fundamental importance in understanding cell and organ growth and is important in understanding certain cancers and other diseases, such as Alzheimer’s disease.

Facing adversity

When Levi-Montalcini began her academic career, she faced several obstacles because of her gender and religion. She lived in a time when women were not expected to work, especially in a field such as scientific research. She was also Jewish, and she lived through horrific persecution during World War II.

In 1936 Rita graduated with a degree in medicine and intended to embark on a career in research. Unfortunately, Mussolini (an Italian fascist politician, who ruled Italy from 1922 to 1943) issued a manifesto banning all non-Aryan citizens from having an academic career (non-Aryan citizens include Jewish people, gypsies, homosexuals and other minority groups). This meant that anyone who was Jewish, like Levi-Montalcini, was barred from research.

Her family was not planning on emigrating from Italy, so she decided to set up a laboratory in her bedroom, where she continued her research. In 1943, Germany invaded Italy and Levi-Montalcini and her family were forced to move underground for a year. Levi-Montalcini took her research with her.

After the German army was forced out of Italy in 1945, she was hired as a medical doctor and assigned to a camp of war refugees to treat infectious diseases until the war ended later that year. She returned to her research at the University of Turin, and then moved to the University of Washington, St Louis, where she discovered NGF.

Touched a nerve

NGF, a small protein, is involved in growth, maintenance and signalling of nerves within the body. Primarily it controls the growth and survival of sensory neurons.

Sensory neurons are responsible for converting an external stimulus, such as the heat or pain from touching a flame, into electrical impulses  called action potentials  in the body. This signal passes via synapses into the central nervous system (the brain and spinal cord) and then on to motor neurons.

Motor neurons release acetylcholine at the neuromuscular junction, a synapse between motor neuron and muscle fibre. This neurotransmitter triggers an action potential along the muscle fibre, leading to contraction of the muscle (the effector), which causes movement (the response).

Despite the enormous challenges Levi-Montalcini faced through her early career, she never fully gave up her research. As a result of her discovery of NGF, she received the Nobel Prize and many other awards.

In 1963 she was the first female scientist to receive the Max Weinstein award for outstanding contributions to neurological research. Then, in 1975, she was the first woman to become a member of the Pontifical Scientific Academy.

Levi-Montalcini was awarded her Nobel Prize 34 years after her discovery of NGF, as the implications of what she had achieved hadnt been realised in 1952 when she presented the findings.

Lead image:

A digital illustration of Rita Levi-Montalcini.

Daria Kirpach and Salzman International/Wellcome Collection CC BY NC


Questions for discussion

  • Do you think attitudes have changed regarding female scientists since Rita Levi-Montalcini’s time? Why?

About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Inside the Brain’ in January 2013 and reviewed and updated in November 2017.

Inside the Brain
Education levels:
16–19, Continuing professional development