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2013 Award for Distinguished Research in the Biomedical Sciences

Huda Akil, Ph.D., University of Michigan


“When I was growing up in Damascus, the notion that a little Syrian girl could become a scientist seemed like an impossible dream,” she wrote in a commentary for the Washington Times. But the little girl with the big dream is now internationally renowned Huda Akil, Ph.D., Gardner C. Quarton Professor of Neurosciences in Psychiatry at the University of Michigan Medical School and co-director and senior research professor at the university’s Molecular and Behavioral Neuroscience Institute.

A pioneer of what is now called systems neuroscience, Dr. Akil has made seminal contributions to the understanding of the neurobiology of emotions and the interplay between pain, anxiety, depression, stress, and substance abuse. “Dr. Huda Akil’s scientific work has transformed our understanding of the molecular, anatomical, and behavioral mechanisms of emotionality,” said James O. Woolliscroft, M.D., dean and Lyle C. Roll Professor of Medicine at the University of Michigan Medical School.

Dr. Akil provided the first physiological evidence for the existence of endorphins, and showed that, at times of stress, the body activates the endorphin system and blocks pain responses. Dr. Akil’s lab also investigated the molecular and neural mechanisms underlying stress reactivity and how that relates to anxiety and depression Using rodent models, she discovered new molecules and genes that relate to temperament and cause vulnerability or resilience to mood and addictive disorders.

Scientific knowledge of the neurobiology of stress exploded following Dr. Akil’s work on the role of neuropeptides in response to stressful events, says Jack. D. Barchas, M.D., Barklie McKee Henry Professor and chair of the department of psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College. He praises Dr. Akil as an innovative thinker, a world-class mentor and teacher, and a brilliant scientist who is “hypothesis-oriented but not afraid of serendipity.” He adds, “Dr. Akil’s laboratory has arguably made more contributions than any other in the world in recent years.”

Dr. Akil is the past president of the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology (1998) and the Society for Neuroscience (2004). She has been honored with membership in the Institute of Medicine, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the National Academy of Sciences. Dr. Akil is a prolific scholar, having authored more than 600 publications in leading journals, and has contributed three decades of service on dozens of editorial and advisory boards.

Throughout her career, Dr. Akil has been recognized with numerous honors and awards. She received the National Institute on Drug Abuse Pacesetter Award in 1993 and was the co-recipient with Dr. Stanley Watson of the Robert J. and Claire Pasarow Foundation Medical Research Award for Neuropsychiatry in 1994. In 1998, she accepted the Sachar Award from Columbia University, and was also the recipient of the Bristol Myers Squibb Unrestricted Research Funds Award, the John P. McGovern Award in Behavioral Sciences from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (2006), the Paul Hoch Distinguished Research Service Award from the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology (2010), and, with Dr. Stanley Watson, the 2012 Sarnat Prize from the Institute of Medicine.

Dr. Akil attended the American University of Beirut, where she received her B.A. and M.A. degrees. She earned her Ph.D. from the University of California, Los Angeles, and was a post-doctoral fellow at Stanford University.

Award for Distinguished Research in the Biomedical Sciences

This award recognizes outstanding clinical or laboratory research conducted by a medical school faculty member.