14 December 2012. Psychiatric genetics pioneer Irving Gottesman of the University of Minnesota has received the 2013 University of Louisville Grawemeyer Award for Psychology. In a statement released by the Grawemeyer award committee, Gottesman is cited for his decades of work advancing the view that mental illnesses, and schizophrenia in particular, are the result of a complex interplay of many genes, environmental stressors, epigenetic modification, and stochastic events.
The Grawemeyer Foundation, established by industrialist, entrepreneur, and University of Louisville alumnus H. Charles Grawemeyer, awards a total of $1 million each year for outstanding achievements in education, psychology, music composition, ideas improving world order, and religion. The psychology award carries a cash prize of $100,000.
The award committee further lauded Gottesman’s championing of endophenotypes as the research targets most likely to yield success in genetic studies of psychiatric illnesses, quoting a nominator’s view that “Gottesman’s idea has transformed our assumptions about the origins of psychological disease and wellness and, in turn, has helped to shape our contemporary understanding of the complexities of human nature.” Gottesman’s 2003 paper with Todd Gould (Gottesman and Gould, 2003) on endophenotypes and animal models in psychiatry research has been cited more than 2,500 times.
Gottesman’s views on genetic contributions to schizophrenia were decisively shaped by research he conducted with twins at Minnesota for his Ph.D. thesis in the late 1950s, and later with James Shields at Maudsley Hospital in London. This work, captured in Shields and Gottesman’s 1972 book, Schizophrenia and Genetics: A Twin Study Vantage Point, dealt a decisive blow to the then-prevailing view that schizophrenia was caused by environmental factors such as inadequate parenting.
Irving Gottesman (second from right) at Lieber Prize ceremony in 2008. Image courtesy of NARSAD
“It’s probably the best twin study to this day that’s ever been undertaken,” Gottesman’s Minnesota colleague Matt McGue says of the Maudsley research in a recent profile of Gottesman in the magazine of the Minnesota Medical Society. “That study, along with some other research at the time, really led to the current model of schizophrenia and most mental illnesses—that they are neurological disorders that are in part inherited. It’s really changed the way people do research on mental disorders.”
Having swung the pendulum toward genetics, in Gottesman’s work with twins in Denmark in the early 1970s he paid special attention to “unexpressed genotypes” in unaffected twins, which led to a vulnerability-stress model of schizophrenia in which polygenic risk factors crossed the threshold into disease when environmental and epigenetic factors came into play. He and Shields again collaborated on a book in 1982 to present these new perspectives, Schizophrenia: The Epigenetic Puzzle. His 1990 book, Schizophrenia Genesis: The Origins of Madness, a masterful, scientifically sophisticated portrait of the illness, has been widely read by researchers, the lay public, and families of patients with schizophrenia. The book won the 1991 William James Award from the American Psychological Association, and remains in print 22 years after its publication.
Now Bernstein Professor of Adult Psychiatry and Senior Fellow in Psychology at the University of Minnesota, Gottesman has held faculty positions at the University of North Carolina Medical School, Washington University School of Medicine, and the University of Virginia.
He has received numerous awards and honors, including the Theodosius Dobzhansky Award for lifetime contributions to behavioral genetics, from the Behavior Genetics Association; the Gold Medal for Lifetime Achievement in Psychological Science, from the American Psychological Association; the Steven V. Logan Award for research on schizophrenia and manic-depressive illnesses, from the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill; and the Lieber Prize for Outstanding Research in Schizophrenia, from NARSAD. This year he was named an Honorary Fellow of King’s College, London.
Last but not least, Irv Gottesman has been a long-standing and valued member of the SRF community, having co-hosted, with Mayada Akil, our very first live online discussion, on endophenotypes, in January 2006.—Pete Farley.