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Stephen F. Heinemann

Stephen F. Heinemann was born in Boston and received his B.S from The California Institute of Technology (CalTech) and his Ph.D from Harvard University. He received postdoctoral training at The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Stanford University School of Medicine. In 1970 he joined the faculty of the Salk Institute and founded the first department of molecular neurobiology using molecular techniques to study the brain. His research focuses on the mechanism of learning and memory, the mechanism of synaptic transmission, synaptic plasticity and the role of glial cells in the brain. Work in his laboratory includes the studying the mechanism underlying neurological diseases such as Alzheimer's disease, drug addiction,learning disabilities and mental illness.

Heinemann and collaborators cloned the first nicotinic receptor gene and this led to the unexpected discover in his laboratory that the mammalian brain expresses a large family of nicotinic receptor genes that are used in a combinatorial manner to assemble pentomeric receptors. Heinemann and collaborators also cloned the first glutamate receptor, the major excitatory neurotransmitter system in the brain. This led to the discovery in his laboratory and later the Seeburg and Nakanishi laboratories of a large family of glutamate receptor genes expressed in the brain. These excitatory neurotransmitter systems are thought to underlie the mechanism of learning and memory and many other brain functions and account for an estimated 95% of excitatory synaptic transmission in our brains. The cloning of the brain receptor genes made it possible for Heinemann and many other laboratories to study the biochemical mechanisms underlying synaptic plasticity thought to be the basis of learning and memory. The cloning of the genes also made it possible to engineer knock-out and knock-in mutations in mice to probe the function of specific brain circuits in the brain. The availability of cloned receptor genes enabled Heinemann and other laboratories to determine high resolution structures of neurotransmitter binding sites and industry has recently stepped up efforts to develop new drugs to treat disease, using cloned receptor genes as a valuable tool in the discovery process. Recently, Pfizer has developed the first effective smoking cessation drug “Chantix” a partial agonist specific for the alpha4/beta2 nicotinic receptor cloned in Heinemann’s laboratory. Many other pharmaceutical companies are developing drugs using cloned receptors as discovery tools for numerous conditions such as Depression, Pain, Anxiety and Alzheimer’s disease.

Heinemann has also pioneered the study of the Kainate subtype of the glutamate receptor family using genetically engineered mice with deletions of various kainate receptor genes. Studies of these mice have shown that kainate receptors play a critical role in regulating the release of neurotransmitter and play a critical role in synaptic plasticity and learning. Heinemann found an association of one kainate receptor gene GluR7 with major depression in humans. Other workers have found associations of other kainate receptor genes with mental illnesses including schizophrenia and autism. Heinemann has engineered a mouse with deletions of all five kainate receptor genes. The mouse is alive demonstrating that the kainate receptor system is not essential for life but is essential for normal brain function. This is consistent with a role as a regulator of synaptic transmission, making kainate receptors a good target for therapeutic drugs.

Heinemann holds the Council Professor in Genetics Chair at The Salk Institute and served as elected Chairman of The Faculty, 1992-1993 and 1999-2000 and Director of the Molecular Neurobiology Laboratory, 1989-1995. He is Adjunct Professor, University of California Medical School, San Diego and External Member of the Max-Planck Institute, Germany. He served as elected President of the Society for Neuroscience (USA)with close to 40,000 members 2005-2006. He has been elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, The Institute of Medicine,(USA) and the National Academy of Sciences, (USA).