From the Archives: Rita Levi-Montalcini

Levi-Montalcini_featDana Alliance member Piergiorgio Strata has just published “Rita Levi-Montalcini and her major contribution to neurobiology” in Rendiconti Lincei; its English version is open-access for reading via Springer Publishing. Its 17 pages are filled with family and science-family photos, including as she entered medical school and when she was awarded a Nobel Prize, and her major scientific collaborators, as well as classic illustrations of her work in neuroembryology and much more (she lived to age 103). Her personal story is inspiring—including doing seminal research at home during wartime in Italy after she was banned from entering formal research facilities because of her faith.

“Life does not end with death. What you pass on to others remains. Immortality is not the body, which will one day die. That does not matter… of importance is the message you leave to others,” said Levi-Montalcini, who was also a founding European Dana Alliance for the Brain member. We were working with her to publish a translation of her latest memoir into English when she died, in 2012.

In 2014, at a memorial symposium in her honor at the Italian Cultural Institute and Centro Primo Levi in New York, Professor Strata told of her struggle during the years of World War II. “At the end of this difficult period, there was a seed for what has been one of most fantastic developments in one field of neuroscience”—the identification of nerve growth factor (NGF). Our report from the symposium, “The Discovery and Potential of Nerve Growth Factor,” also offers a history of her work and her hopes for the future. Part of her legacy was helping to found the European Brain Research Institute in Rome in 2002, then headed by Antonino Cattaneo.

Looking toward the future of NGF-related research, Cattaneo cited an “agenda” that Levi-Montalcini proposed in 2009, at the age of 100. In addition to work aiming to develop its therapeutic potential, she urged investigations of the NGF system’s role earlier in embryonic development than the nervous system, and in more primitive species.

Her agenda called for studies of NGF in other tissues, particularly the reproductive system. “Rita predicted it would be found to participate in processes like activation of sperm or implantation of ova,” Cattaneo said.

Her scientific intuitions were still reliable, he said. In a paper published three years later, researchers described their work identifying a substance in the semen of diverse mammals that induces ovulation. It was NGF.


As a Jewish woman, Rita Levi-Montalcini was not allowed to continue her work, so she practiced medicine and did research in secret. (written by Manfredi Toraldo, illustrated by Francesco Mobili)

In 2016, the European Brain Research Institute co-published online a graphic novel about Levi-Montalcini’s life and work, which they allowed us to host on our site. “Rita Levi-Montalcini: a pioneer in neuroscience” is available as a free PDF in English and Italian. The graphic novel is targeted to high-schoolers, but everyone I know who’s read it has enjoyed it – and learned a lot about life and about science.

– Nicky Penttila

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