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Alumni Interview

John Olney, M.D.

Portrait: John Olney, M.D.

56BA, 63MD

John Olney, M.D. originally from Marathon Iowa, is the John P. Feighner Professor of Psychiatry, Neuropathology and Neuropsychopharmacology at Washington University and an extraordinary researcher in the fields of psychiatry, neuropathology and neuropsychopharmacology. Dr. Olney was the first to show that seizure induced brain damage can be prevented by blocking glutamate receptors, and he proposed the first model to provide a credible explanation for the pattern of neurodegeneration in Alzheimer’s disease. He has contributed a series of critical discoveries that continue to advance our understanding of brain function and brain development.

How/when did you become interested in science and medicine?

I didn’t consider a career in medicine until I was 28 years old. My youngest sister was severely ill with multiple sclerosis and I wanted to find an effective treatment to reverse the course of her illness. It was naïve to believe I could be successful because I didn’t even have a strong educational background in science. I had a BA degree but had to take preparatory courses in science to convince the medical college to accept me.

What interested you to pursue a career in medicine and medical research?

I have always been intrigued with the brain and the workings of the mind, so I decided to specialize in the clinical field of psychiatry, with the intention of doing basic research aimed at discovering methods for curing or preventing neuropsychiatric disorders.

Please highlight your major career achievements, awards, discoveries, etc.

In 1996 I was elected to the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences. I also received the Peter H. Raven Lifetime Award for Service and Accomplishments in Science, and the Society Biological Psychiatry Lifetime Achievements Award the same year. I’ve received the Outstanding Scientist Award from the National Alliance for Mental Illness, the Jacob Hoosima Memorial Award from the International Neurotoxicology Association and the American Psychopathological Association Zubin Award for Meritorious Mental Health Research. Most recently I was honored with the Second Century Award from the Washington University School of Medicine.

How or why did you choose the University of Iowa for your education and medical training?

I am a native of Iowa; the University of Iowa provides a good quality of education at a low cost (at least in those days); I supported myself in medical school using the GI Bill. This would not have gone very far at more expensive medical schools. And finally, my premedical education was not strongly developed in a medical direction so my best chances of being accepted for medical studies was at my own alma mater.

What kind of professional opportunities or advantages has your University of Iowa medical training provided?

It provided me the opportunity to be accepted for psychiatry residency training at Washington University which is one of the best medical schools in the USA.

As a graduate of the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine, what does being the recipient of the Distinguished Alumni Award mean to you?

It is a treasured honor and causes me to think back sentimentally upon my days at the University of Iowa when I never dreamt that I would ever be recognized for distinguished achievements in any walk of life by my Alma Mater or anyone else.

Please describe your professional interests.

My interests are in clinical neurology and psychiatry and neuroscience research.

Your pioneering work has given rise to an entire new branch of neuroscience research and to new insights that have improved the understanding of, and may lead to new treatments for, many neuropsychiatric disorders. From where did your interest in psychiatry, and more specifically neuropathology and neuropsychopharmacology, stem?

The human brain and its mental productions (the mind) are the most complex entities in existence. For as long as I can remember, I have been in awe of the brain's marvelous complexity. Life is short and I don't like to waste any minute of it, so I decided to devote my life's energies to the most intriguing and complex challenge I could imagine - trying to decipher the workings of the brain. If there is anything more complex than the normal human brain, it would be an abnormal human brain that has the added complexity of a disease process. Therefore, it was natural for me to take on the additional challenge of trying to decipher neuropathological processes that disrupt normal brain function. In addition, diseases of the brain destroy human personalities and bring much grief and suffering to the afflicted and their loved ones. Therefore, I felt strongly motivated by the realization that if I were successful in discovering ways of curing or preventing neuropsychiatric disorders, I could save millions of people from having to bear such suffering.

In your research, your discoveries have played a seminal role in the pathophysiology of both acute and chronic neurodegenerative disorders and you continue to make extensive and vital discoveries in acute brain injury, chronic neurodegenerative diseases and neurodevelopmental disorders. Within your past research and present, what would you say has been your most important discovery?

I have made two discoveries that I believe are almost equally important; both stand out as more important than other discoveries I have made.

The first pertains to the neurotransmitter and excitotoxic properties of glutamate. When I began studying glutamate in the late 1960s it was not known why the brain contains a high concentration of glutamate, and the dogma at that time was that glutamate could not possibly be a transmitter. My discovery of glutamate's excitotoxic activity led me to propose that glutamate must be a major excitatory transmitter throughout the the brain, and the most logical explanation for its toxic activity would be that its excitatory activity had gotten out of control. I further proposed that if this natural transmitter can destroy neurons when it gets out of control, it might play a role in neurodegenerative disorders. I proposed this circa 1971 and subsequent research in the 1980s confirmed that glutamate is the predominant excitatory transmitter throughout the central nervous system and it plays a primary role in numerous brain disorders.

My other most important discovery is that developing neurons in the fetal and infant brain commit suicide (die by apoptosis) when exposed to various drugs that are ubiquitous in the human environment, including drugs that pregnant mothers sometimes abuse (alcohol, phencyclidine, ketamine, barbiturates, benzodiazepines) and drugs that are used in pediatric and obstetric medicine (sedatives, anesthetics, anticonvulsants). All anesthetic drugs have this neurotoxic property and we have shown that these drugs trigger neuroapoptosis in the developing animal brain at low doses (doses that are not sufficient to fully anesthetize an infant animal). It is currently debated whether these animal data are relevant to humans, so we are currently living through a period in which there is a tendency to deny that the mounting animal evidence has any human relevance. However, looking back to the days when I first reported that glutamate can kill neurons by exciting them to death, this finding was not only rejected, it was ridiculed by established authority. It required about 15 years before the pendulum began swinging in the other direction. It is too early to say where the pendulum will come to rest on the developmental neuroapoptosis issue, but it is my belief that the developing human brain is probably vulnerable to this effect and it probably is an occult contributor to neurodevelopmental disabilities in human populations throughout the civilized world. That is what my crystal ball is telling me, and this causes me to suggest that the developmental neuroapoptosis discovery may be recognized one day as a discovery that has important implications for human health.

What are some of your outside interests?

I own an old sheep farm in Sonoma County, California which I and my son (who is a professional winemaker) are converting into a vineyard where we attempt to make palatable wines. I enjoy fine food, together with fine wine, and take pleasure in music, painting, poetry and philosophical writings. I also derive pleasure from being a benevolent grandfather to six lovely grandchildren, and a loving husband to an Austrian lady who has been my faithful companion for the last 50 years.

If you could change one thing about the practice or business of medicine, what would it be?

I would like to see the medical establishment exercise responsible control over the business of medicine, and would like to see the federal government implement a responsible plan for using tax dollars to provide health care for all of our citizens. I would like to see the parasitic health management system disenfranchised and barred from seeking profits at the expense of the citizenry.

What do you see as "the future" of psychiatry and psychiatric medicine?

Psychiatric medicine has a very promising future. Psychiatric illnesses are caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors. The genetic factors are very powerful and heretofore have been out of reach - very difficult to comprehend and not amenable to regulation or control. In recent years the human genome has been deciphered and methods for detecting genetic anomalies that contribute to neuropsychiatric disorders are rapidly being developed so that it soon will be possible to describe the complex combination of genetic factors that contribute to each type of psychiatric disorder. Gaining knowledge of what causes a disease is the first major step toward curing or preventing it. Therefore, within the next decade or two I anticipate rapid progress in curing or preventing psychiatric disorders.

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