Richard Wurtman

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Richard Wurtman
Born March 9, 1936
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States
Residence United States
Fields Neuroscience, Treatments for Brain Diseases, Nutrition and the Brain
Institutions MIT, Harvard
Alma mater

A.B., University of Pennsylvania

M.D., Harvard Medical School
Clinical Training in Medicine and in Endocrinology, Massachusetts General Hospital
Research Training, National Institutes of Health
Known for Invention of use of melatonin to promote sleep
Use of serotoninergic drugs to treat obesity and other disorders characterized by disturbances in both appetite and mood
Strategies for finding drugs to treat Alzheimer's Disease; (Wurtman, 2009)
Use of their circulating precursors to increase the syntheses of brain neurotransmitters and membranes

Richard Wurtman, M.D., is the Cecil H. Green Distinguished Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a Professor of Neuroscience in MIT’s Department of Brain & Cognitive Sciences, and of Neuropharmacology in the Harvard – MIT Division of Health Sciences & Technology.

His research career encompasses three areas:

  • Basic-science studies, principally on neurotransmitters and other brain chemicals
One of the earliest areas of Wurtman's focus was in dietary precurors of neurotransmitters such as acetylcholine.[1]
Along with Nicholas Zervas of Beth Israel Hospital and Harvard Medical School, another early area of Wurtman's research pertained to the neurotransmitter dopamine, and its role in stroke physiology.[2] Wurtman's studies occurred at a time of significant growth in research and understanding of neurotransmitters, with optimistic expectations for practical outcomes.[3]
  • Clinical studies to confirm that mechanisms discovered in the laboratory also operate in humans
  • Translational work, usually in collaboration with foundations or companies, to apply the basic-science discoveries to finding new treatments for diseases

Research performed in Wurtman's laboratory has generated about 1,000 research articles and 200 patents.[4] One such patent was for a weight-loss drug, named Redux, which transpired to have some controversial side effects.[5] Although at the time of its release, some optimism prevailed that it might herald a new approach, there remained some reservations amongst neurologists. Wurtman himself, while a proponent of the drug, stressed that "it's not a magic pill", and urged caution in its use.[6] Wurtman also patented a pharmaceutical invention covering the use of melatonin for controlling sleep. Melatonin was itself subjected to "starry-eyed extrapolations from experiments conducted on rats and mice". While Wurtman noted that the use of small doses to induce sleep and shift the sleep cycle was uncontroversial, he criticised some of the extrapolations and claims being made about the benefits of melatonin supplements.[7]

Among discoveries from Wurtman's laboratory have been that

  • Melatonin is a hormone, secreted at night-time, needed for the induction & maintenance of normal sleep
  • Dietary carbohydrates, acting via insulin, increase brain tryptophan levels and consequently serotonin synthesis and release, thereby affecting appetite
  • Serotoninergic synapses are thus a useful target for drugs to treat obesity and other conditions which affect appetite and mood (e.g. premenstrual syndrome; seasonal depression)
  • Oral administration of neurotransmitter precursors such as choline, tyrosine or glutamine can enhance the synthesis and release of their products acetylcholine, dopamine or GABA (by increasing the substrate-saturation of the biosynthetic enzymes)[8]
  • Various neurotransmitters and "second messengers" can modulate the breakdown of APP (the amyloid-precursor protein) and thus the formation of amyloid beta, a protein important in the development of Alzheimer's disease.
  • The biosynthesis in brain of synaptic membrane and its specializations (dendritic spines; neurites; synapses) can be enhanced by treatments affecting plasma composition.

With wife Judith Wurtman, Wurtman co-edited an eight-volume series of books on “Nutrition and the Brain”, and with John Growdon, M.D. and Suzanne Corkin, Ph.D., a nine volume series on Alzheimer’s disease.

Wurtman co-founded Interneuron Pharmaceuticals, a company aimed at marketing discoveries by M.I.T. scientists,[9] and of Back Bay Scientific, Inc. He established the Center for Brain Sciences and Metabolism Charitable Trust, and serves as its Scientific Director.


Among Wurtman's publications are the following (see External links below for link to pdf of fuller list):


  1. ^ Cohen, Edith L; Wurtman, Richard J (Feb 13, 1976), "Brain Acetylcholine: Control by Dietary Choline" (PDF), Science 191 (4227): 561–562, doi:10.1126/science.1251187, PMID 1251187, retrieved 3 October 2010 
  2. ^ "Medicine: Hope for Stroke Victims", Time, Apr 29, 1974, retrieved 3 October 2010 
  3. ^ "Behavior: Better Living Through Biochemistry", Time, Apr 2, 1979, retrieved 3 October 2010  See p.3 for mention of Wurtman's studies 
  4. ^ Wurtman Lab
  5. ^ Lemonick, Michael D; Nash, J. Madeleine; Park, Alice; Thompson, Dick (Sep 29, 1997), ., ed., "The Mood Molecule", Time, retrieved 4 October 2010  |chapter= ignored (help)
  6. ^ Toufexis, Anastasia; Park, Alice (May 13, 1996), "Diet Pills are Coming Back", Time, retrieved 4 October 2010 
  7. ^ Beardsley, Tim (April 1, 1996), "Melatonin Mania: Separating the facts from the hype", Scientific American, retrieved 4 October 2010 
  8. ^ New approach to fighting Alzheimer’s, MIT News Office
  9. ^ Lemonick, Michael D; Dowell, William; Nash, J. Madeleine; Ramirez, Ainissa; Reid, Brian; Ressner, Jeffrey (Sep 23, 1996), ., ed., "The New Miracle Drug?", Time, retrieved 3 October 2010  |chapter= ignored (help)

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