Eternal Life? Nobel Laureate Rita Levi Montalcini Turns 103

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Has Dr. Rita Levi Montalcini unlocked the secret of eternal life? The oldest living and the longest-lived Nobel laureate in history, Montalcini celebrates today her 103th birthday.

"I can say my mental capacity is greater today than when I was 20, since it has been enriched by so many experiences," she says.

Her longevity might be the result of an unusual potion she takes every day in the form of eye drops — a dose of nerve growth factor, which she discovered (jointly with American co-worker Stanley Cohen), in June 1951 in the labs of Washington University in St. Louis.

A protein essential for the growth, maintenance, and survival of sensory and sympathetic neurons (nerve cells) in the peripheral nervous system, NGF was not widely recognized until 1986, when it won Levi Montalcini and Cohen the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine.

Levi Montalcini still follows the developments of her findings at the European Brain Research Institute, which she founded in Rome.

Indeed, her work has had a significant influence on research exploring several diseases, including cancer, Parkinson's disease and Alzheimer's disease.

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Rita, as she prefers to be called, celebrated her birthday privately, raising a toast with some of her closest collaborators.

As always, she was exquisitely dressed and wore some ancient jewels, the Italian daily Affari Italiani writes.

In line with her motto "I look forward," she decided to wait for the cake until this fall.

"She will celebrate at the Brain Forum in Rome, which is dedicated to her amazing career," the daily wrote.

"Grazie! Thank you," Levi Montalcini wrote on her Facebook page, in response to innumerable birthday wishes.

Envisaging a quantum Internet, for now she is pleased to find out that her Facebook likes grew "from 2,000 to 200,000."

She now continues to work as a senator for life and last month harshly criticized Mario Monti's government of technocrats for abolishing the peer review mechanism in funding policies to researchers.

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"Italy — and quite possibly the world — has never seen a scientist quite like her," the journal Nature wrote on the occasion of her widely celebrated 100th birthday.

Born with her twin sister, Paola, (who died in 2000 at age 91) to a Jewish family in Turin in 1909, Levi Montalcini went to medical school, despite the objections of her father. He worried that her work as a doctor would interfere with her duties of future wife and mother.

"At 20, I realized that I could not possibly adjust to a feminine role as conceived by my father and asked him permission to engage in a professional career," Levi Montalcini wrote in her biography.

"In eight months I filled my gaps in Latin, Greek and mathematics, graduated from high school, and entered medical school in Turin," she added.

She graduated in 1936, but two years later her career was halted by Mussolini's laws banning "inferior races" from academic and professional careers.

Undaunted, Levi Montalcini set up an improvised laboratory in her bedroom during World War II and studied the growth of nerve fibers in chicken embryos.

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After fleeing with her family to Florence in 1943, she worked as a nurse and a doctor treating refugees with infectious diseases.

After the war, she accepted an invitation to study for a semester at Washington University in St. Louis. She remained there, continuing her work on nerve growth factor, for three decades.

Director of the Institute of Cell Biology of the Italian National Council of Research in Rome from 1968 to 1978, she retained her faculty status at Washington University until 1977, when she became professor emeritus.

After 1978, she continued her research at the institute in Rome, collecting innumerable awards and acknowledgments from institutions around the world.

Made a senator for life in 2001 for her work in science and for the promotion and defense of civil rights, Levi Montalcini founded the European Brain Research Institute in 2005 at age 96.

"I'm not afraid of death," she said in various interviews.

"The most important thing is the message you leave. This is immortality."

Photo: Rita Levi Montalcini speaking at the international NGF meeting in 2008. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.