The National Academy of Medicine today announced Daniel Weinberger is the recipient of the 2019 Rhoda and Bernard Sarnat International Prize in Mental Health, for his fundamental role in elucidating the biological origins and genetic expressions of schizophrenia, and for transforming how clinicians, researchers, and the public understand mental illness. The award, which recognizes Weinberger’s achievements with a medal and $20,000, will be presented at the National Academy of Medicine’s annual meeting in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 21. Weinberger is the director and CEO of the Lieber Institute for Brain Development and a professor in the departments of psychiatry, neurology, neuroscience, and genetics at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.
Weinberger’s research challenged conventional scientific thought focused on neurochemical causes of schizophrenia and changed the research paradigm to make brain science the centerpiece of schizophrenia research. He was the first to show that the genetics of schizophrenia involves early brain development and complications during pregnancy, including the resilience of the placenta to obstetrical stress. The results of his work have suggested that risk factors for schizophrenia, both genetic and epigenetic, are more strongly linked to early brain development than to the time of life when the diagnosis is made. His studies have also led to cognition being an outcome measure in most current treatment strategies for schizophrenia. In 2014, he was part of a landmark study that identified more than 100 regions in human DNA that can increase someone’s risk for developing the condition.
In addition, Weinberger pioneered the application of neuroimaging in psychiatry research, and many of today’s major, enduring findings on neuroimaging in schizophrenia have emerged from Weinberger’s laboratory. His research discoveries on prefrontal cortex function have been widely replicated, and they are largely responsible for the prefrontal cortex being considered the main region of interest in many imaging and brain tissue studies related to schizophrenia. In addition, his pioneering research on gene mechanisms of brain circuit function spurred the creation of the National Institute of Mental Health’s Research Domain Criteria program, which aims to develop a system for how mental health disorders are classified and diagnosed.
Weinberger has mentored over 120 postdoctoral fellows, residents, and other trainees. His students have become leaders of departments of psychiatry and research programs around the world.
“Dr. Weinberger’s impact extends far beyond advancing our understanding of schizophrenia, as he has more broadly shifted the national conversation about mental illness,” said National Academy of Medicine President Victor J. Dzau. “Dr. Weinberger has dedicated his career to understanding what makes these conditions occur, opening up new chapters in medicine, and transforming the lives of many. He is most deserving of this important recognition.”
Since 1992 the Sarnat Prize has been presented to individuals, groups, or organizations that have demonstrated outstanding achievement in improving mental health. The prize recognizes — without regard for professional discipline or nationality — achievements in basic science, clinical application, and public policy that lead to progress in the understanding, etiology, prevention, treatment, or cure of mental disorders, or to the promotion of mental health. As defined by the nominating criteria, the field of mental health encompasses neuroscience, psychology, social work, nursing, psychiatry, and advocacy.
The award is supported by an endowment created by Rhoda and Bernard Sarnat of Los Angeles. Rhoda Sarnat was a licensed clinical social worker, and Bernard Sarnat was a plastic and reconstructive surgeon and researcher. The Sarnats’ concern about the destructive effects of mental illness inspired them to establish the award. Nominations for potential recipients are solicited from Academy members, deans of medical schools, and mental health professionals. This year’s selection committee was chaired by Karen F. Berman, M.D., senior investigator and chief, Clinical & Translational Neuroscience Branch , Section on Integrative Neuroimaging Psychosis & Cognitive Studies Section, National Institute of Mental Health Intramural Research Program, National Institutes of Health.
The National Academy of Medicine, established in 1970 as the Institute of Medicine, is an independent organization of eminent professionals from diverse fields including health and medicine; the natural, social, and behavioral sciences; and beyond. It serves alongside the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering as an adviser to the nation and the international community. Through its domestic and global initiatives, the NAM works to address critical issues in health, medicine, and related policy and inspire positive action across sectors. The NAM collaborates closely with its peer academies and other divisions within the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.