Huda Akil, a University of Michigan neuroscientist who has explored the brain’s secrets for more than 50 years, has been awarded the National Medal of Science — the nation’s highest scientific honor.
She received the award Oct. 24, at a White House ceremony with President Joe Biden, for her contributions to the understanding of depression, anxiety, addiction and more. Akil’s work delves deep into the genes, proteins and cells that help govern human emotions and moods, and responses to pleasure and pain.
Akil is the Gardner C. Quarton Distinguished University Professor of Neurosciences, the Gardner C. Quarton Collegiate Professor of Neurosciences and a professor of psychiatry in the Medical School, and a research professor in the Michigan Neuroscience Institute.
She is the eighth U-M faculty member to receive the Medal of Science and was among nine medalists announced at the ceremony.
“I am deeply honored, humbled and grateful,” Akil said. “I’m especially grateful for all the opportunities the United States has given me to be a scientist and make contributions to our understanding of the brain.”
Akil’s road to the award began in Syria, where she was born, and Lebanon, where she discovered her passion for understanding the brain’s mysteries as an undergraduate majoring in psychology.
She came to the United States 55 years ago for graduate studies and has spent 45 years at U-M building a wide-ranging research program with her scientific partner and husband, Stanley Watson, the Ralph Waldo Gerard Professor of Neurosciences and professor of psychiatry in the Medical School, and a research professor in the Michigan Neuroscience Institute.
Together, they led what is now called MNI for more than 25 years and oversaw the research and training of hundreds of young neuroscientists, who came to be known as “Wakils.” Many of them now lead research programs of their own in universities worldwide.
Akil’s early work focused on understanding the brain’s own “natural painkillers” — endogenous opioids — and how they interact with receptors on the surface of brain cells. Her team’s discoveries about these molecules and receptors laid the groundwork for many other scientists’ work to this day.
From there, Akil’s research grew into an exploration of the impacts of stress on the brain at the molecular level, and the genetic and cellular differences that may make someone more or less vulnerable to developing depression, anxiety or substance use disorders including opioid addiction.
Taken together, Akil says she believes the findings made by her team should give a message of hope about mental health.
“Mood and addictive disorders are a huge challenge in today’s society, but we are making great progress in understanding their causes and devising new strategies for treating them,” she said. “I am especially passionate about finding ways to prevent these illnesses before they take significant hold, and I hope to use whatever capabilities I have to make a difference on this front. I believe it can be done.”
In addition to her scientific achievements and leadership roles at U-M, Akil has been a scientific leader nationally, including terms as president of the Society for Neuroscience and the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology, and service on the advisory committee to the director of the National Institutes of Health.
Her many honors include election to the Institute of Medicine, now called the National Academy of Medicine, and the National Academy of Sciences. She is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Alone or together with Watson, she has won numerous other prizes and honors.
As a result of the growing body of scientific knowledge about the biological roots of human behavior and mental health conditions, Akil says society’s attitudes have begun to change.
“The stigma associated with disorders such as depression, anxiety and addiction to opioids and other drugs continues to be a major challenge. But we have made significant progress in framing these disorders in biomedical terms and addressing them using scientific, evidence-based approaches,” she said.
“I think the public has embraced the idea that these disorders are the result of both biological predisposition and environmental factors. But that does not make them any less painful, often devastating and even deadly.”
With policymakers at every level now focused on the rising rates and impacts of mental health conditions, the crisis of overdose deaths, and the need for more evidence-based care, Akil said now is the time for scientists to engage publicly.
“Science needs to partner with every facet of society — locally, nationally and globally — to fight these illnesses with every tool we have, while continuing to advance our knowledge and develop new strategies for better prevention and treatment.”
In addition to her husband and her parents, who nurtured her curiosity, Akil credited the key role of her research mentors John Liebeskind, Jack Barchas and Bernard Agranoff, and U-M as her scientific home. She also noted that she and Watson have been able to collaborate scientifically with their children, who have both developed their own careers in medicine and neuroscience.
Established by Congress in 1959, the National Medal of Science is the highest recognition the nation can bestow on scientists and engineers. The presidential award is given to individuals for their outstanding contributions to knowledge in the physical, biological, mathematical, engineering, or social and behavioral sciences. The NMS program is managed by the National Science Foundation.
The last time the Medal of Science was awarded was in 2016, for laureates selected in 2012 and 2014.
Two other Medical School faculty members, both now deceased, have won the medal: neuroanatomist Elizabeth Crosby and geneticist James Neel.
Current faculty member Hyman Bass won for mathematics research in 2012, and emeritus professor Robert Axelrod won for political science and public policy research in 2014. Late U-M faculty members Horace Richard Crane, Donald Katz and Emmett Leith won for contributions in physics and engineering.