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Stephen F. Heinemann, pioneering Salk neuroscientist, dies at 75

Stephen F. Heinemann

Stephen F. Heinemann

Stephen F. Heinemann, whose pioneering research on neurotransmitter receptors in the brain helped lay the groundwork for understanding diseases of the brain, died August 6 of complications of kidney failure at Vibra Hospital in San Diego, California. He was 75.

A professor of neuroscience at the Salk Institute, Heinemann focused his research on the molecular mechanisms by which nerve cells communicate with each other at specialized connections known as synapses.

Groundbreaking findings from his laboratory supported the idea that many diseases of the brain result from deficits in communication between nerve cells. He was widely considered one of the world’s most accomplished neuroscientists.

“Steve was a giant of twentieth century neuroscience,” says William Brody, president of the Salk Institute. “His discoveries opened many avenues to better understand the function of the brain and for pursuing new therapies for neurological disorders.”

Heinemann was born in Boston on February 11, 1939, to parents Robert B. Heinemann, a secondary school teacher and counselor, and Christel Fuchs Holtzer. He received his first chemistry set from his uncle, Emil Julius Klaus Fuchs, a theoretical physicist who contributed to the development of the atom bomb as part of the Manhattan Project, but later confessed to spying for the Soviet Union.

Heinemann earned a bachelor of science degree from the California Institute of Technology in 1962 and a PhD in biochemistry from Harvard University in 1967. Subsequently, he completed postdoctoral studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stanford University School of Medicine.

In 1970, Heinemann was invited to join the core faculty of the Salk Institute, and was among its very first neuroscientists. There, he established the Salk Institute’s Molecular Neurobiology Laboratory, a program that by the late 1980s was ranked number one in the world. Among his many notable achievements, Heinemann and his team identified the genes encoding the major excitatory neurotransmitter receptors in the brain–those that are activated by glutamate and acetylcholine–and figured out how these receptors work.

Stephen F. Heinemann

“His discoveries established the basic molecular rules for how nerve signals are conveyed from one neuron to the next,” says Greg Lemke, a professor of molecular neuroscience at Salk. “It is difficult to overs tate the importance of this science–both for our understanding of how brains process information normally, and for how things can go wrong in neuropsychiatric and neurodegenerative disease.”

Heinemann held several patents and was honored by numerous awards in his lifetime. He was a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the National Institute of Medicine, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and was a former President of the Society for Neuroscience. He received the Bristol-Myers Squibb Distinguished Achievement in Neuroscience Research Award and the McKnight Award for Research. In 2010, he was awarded the Julius Axelrod Prize for exceptional achievements in neuropharmacology and exemplary efforts in mentoring young scientists.

He is survived by his wife of 54 years, Ann Reischauer Heinemann; his sons, Nate (Suzi), Danny (Cindy), Quentin (Rachel) and Tad; a daughter, Eden Westgarth (John); sisters Marcia Saunders, Kristel Heinemann, Marianna Holzer and Heidi Holzer; and 12 grandchildren.