Arvid Carlsson received both his md and PhD degrees in 1951 from the University of Lund, Sweden, where he served subsequently as Assistant and Associate Professor

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Interviewed by William E. Bunney, Jr.

Las Croabas, Puerto Rico, December 12, 1998
WB: I have the honor today of interviewing Dr. Arvid Carlsson from Gothenburg, Sweden, and I wonder if you’d start by telling us what your current position is and your title.

AC: I am Emeritus Professor of Pharmacology at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden.

WB: OK. Can you tell me what kind of training you have?

AC: I am a medical doctor, so I had my original training at the University of Lund, which is in the “deep south” of Sweden. My training in medicine and the work on my thesis in pharmacology were done in parallel and both were completed in 1951.

WB: What was the thesis on?

AC: That was on something entirely different from what we are going to talk about. It was on calcium metabolism. At that time radioactive isotopes had become commercially available and this of course, opened up tremendous opportunities for studying metabolism of various compounds, including calcium. So, that was what my thesis was about.

WB: How did you first become interested in psychopharmacology?

AC: Shortly after defending my thesis I applied for an associate professorship in pharmacology. We were two, who competed, and I didn’t get it. The panel examining us let me understand that calcium metabolism wasn’t really the thing that pharmacologists should be doing. So I went to an elder friend of mine, Dr. Sune Bergström, professor of biochemistry at the university and asked him whether he could find a laboratory in the US where they were doing some really fine modern work in biochemical pharmacology. He wrote to a friend of his at the NIH and it ended up with a letter of invitation from Dr. Bernard B. Brodie at the Laboratory of Chemical Pharmacology at the NIH.

WB: Who were your colleagues when you were there?

AC: Sidney Udenfriend, for example, was there, a very well known name. The person who was my immediate mentor was Dr. Parkhurst A. Shore and I must say that laboratory was kind of a Mecca of modern pharmacology. Brodie, together with Udenfriend and a doctor, named Bowman, had developed an instrument that turned out to be extremely important, because it was a very sensitive tool for measuring levels of both drugs and endogenous compounds in body tissues and fluids. It was called a spectrophotofluorometer. That was the instrument by which one could, for the first time, measure very low levels of various endogenous compounds, such as neurotransmitters. That was a breakthrough.

WB: My impression was that the Laboratory of Chemical Pharmacology was probably the hottest laboratory in the world, maybe, at that time, in terms of the people there.

AC: That’s true. There was a stream of visitors all the time from all parts of the world.

WB: Wasn’t Fridolin Sulser there for a while?

AC: Fridolin came later. One person, who came at the time I was there, visiting frequently, was Nathan Kline, and he picked up some things there. This was in 1955, by the way. Shore and Brodie had shortly after my arrival discovered that reserpine, an antipsychotic and antihypertensive drug used in those days, caused a virtually complete depletion of serotonin in tissues, including the brain. There was another person, Alfred Pletscher, who came from Basel, from Hoffman-LaRoche. He brought iproniazid, which was the first monoamine oxidase inhibitor, and the interaction between reserpine and iproniazid was so intriguing to Nathan Kline that it ended up with Nathan Kline actually demonstrating the therapeutic action of iproniazid in depressed people, another important discovery.

WB: He got the Lasker Award for that.

AC: Twice, he got it twice, for discovering the antipsychotic action of reserpine and the antidepressant effect of iproniazid.

WB: What was the work you were doing when you were in Brodie’s lab?

AC: That was on reserpine. I was very lucky, because as I mentioned, only a couple of months before I came, Shore and Brodie had discovered the serotonin-depleting action of reserpine. I was given the opportunity to show, in in-vitro experiments in blood platelets, the action of reserpine on the storage of serotonin.

WB: And, how long were you there in Brodie’s lab?

AC: Five months.

WB: OK, and, then, you went back and what did you do when you got back?

AC: Actually, when I was there, I asked Brodie, shouldn’t we also look at some other compounds besides serotonin to see whether reserpine could act on those and Brodie said, no, he didn’t think so. He was so sure serotonin was the most important compound insofar as psychosis was concerned he thought it would be a waste of time. So, I thought perhaps I can do that when I get home and I wrote to a friend of mine, an associate professor of histology in Lund, Nils-Åke Hillarp. He had just made the very important discovery that there are organelles in the adrenal medulla that are capable of storing adrenaline and noradrenaline together with ATP. It was very intriguing. And, I thought, maybe reserpine acts on these organelles. That’s why I wrote to him, asking if we should look at this and he agreed. Apparently reserpine acted in a similar manner on organelles in the adrenal medulla, in the noradrenergic nerves and in the serotonin-storing cells.

WB: So, all these monoamines are stored in a similar manner?

AC: Absolutely, all monoamines. Of course, dopamine was not being discussed at that time.

WB: So, take me through your career in terms of the high points of the research. I think that’s what we really need to do.

AC: Hillarp and I did these experiments and found that also noradrenaline and adrenaline stores are depleted when you give reserpine. We also found that if you stimulated the adrenergic nerves following reserpine treatments, they didn’t respond any more, so we believed that after the neurotransmitter had gone, the nerves couldn’t function any more. This was actually opposite to the hypothesis of Brodie, because he believed that what reserpine does is to cause an ongoing release, so it’s more or less the opposite from the point of view of the function of the system. But, we were in favor of the depletion hypothesis. Reserpine has a very pronounced behavioral effect; the animals become immobile and are heavily sedated. We felt that perhaps we can reverse this condition by giving norepinephrine or serotonin and then see which one is important. But we couldn’t give the amines themselves, because they don’t get into the brain; we had to give the precursors, L-DOPA and 5-hydroxytryptophan. We found a most striking effect when we gave L-DOPA. The animals started to wake up within ten minutes following an IV injection and, then behaved like normal animals.

WB: It must have been exciting when you first saw this.

AC: We were just as excited as the animals. It was really dramatic. We were so excited that we very quickly wrote a letter to Nature, sending a photograph of the response. They accepted the letter, but they didn’t think the photograph was worthwhile. But at that time when we sent it off, we hadn’t yet analyzed the brains. We were sure that there should be a lot of noradrenaline in those brains since the animals responded so nicely, and we were, of course, greatly disappointed when we found there was still no noradrenaline. In order to save our face, we thought, maybe at least, we could look for dopamine in the brain, because that is an intermediate between L-DOPA and noradrenaline. We had to develop a method for measuring dopamine and, then, we found that, sure enough, the response to L-DOPA could be correlated very closely to the formation and accumulation of dopamine in the brain. We also found that dopamine does indeed occur in the brain under normal conditions and not just in those small levels you would assume an intermediate would have. Actually, the levels were a little bit higher than those of noradrenaline. From all these findings, we proposed that dopamine is an agonist in its own right in the brain.

WB: Was that the first time that was proposed?

AC: That was the first time. We were the first to identify dopamine in the brain, in 1958, and to propose a role for it in the brain. And soon afterwards we proposed that parkinsonism could be due to dopamine deficiency and that L-DOPA could have an anti-parkinson effect. We were very excited and went to a meeting shortly after that, Hillarp and I, in London, on Adrenergic Mechanisms. There were all the big shots, with Sir Henry Dale on top, and we reported on these things, bu were disappointed that they were not impressed. We got all kinds of questions such as, is it really true these amines could have a function in the brain? They didn’t believe so. Marthe Vogt, for example, was very much against it, like many others, and the British pharmacologist Paton referred to some unpublished data indicating that these amines are in the glia, and had no importance. We were very disappointed. We thought, now we at least had to prove that these amines do occur in nerves. Hillarp was a very clever histochemist, so he developed a method that enabled us to see where these amines are located and, indeed, they are in the nerves. They are not in the glia and they had a distribution that was very much the same as in peripheral adrenergic nerves, where it was known already that noradrenaline is a neurotransmitter. That was very important to convince the scientific community that in the brain you have chemical transmission as in the peripheral system and not, as was generally believed, that signaling between the nerves in neurons in the brain was electrical only, Our findings triggered the concept of chemical transmission in the central nervous system.

WB: So, that opened up a whole conceptual field.

AC: Yes, absolutely. Before that, the kinds of questions that were dealt with in psychopharmacology and CNS physiology had to do with carbohydrate metabolism and the like. If you go into the 1970s, if you look at journals then, nearly all research in the central nervous system is centered around neurotransmitters, so that was a revolution in neuroscience.

WB: Now, take this into the pharmacology, in terms of the drugs.

AC: Brodie’s interest in reserpine was due to the discovery a few years earlier that reserpine and chlorpromazine have such a dramatic effect in psychosis and schizophrenia. The discoveries just mentioned opened up entirely new aspects of the mode of action of antipsychotic drugs and, as a consequence, new hypotheses about the pathogenesis of schizophrenia, for example, the dopamine hypothesis.. While reserpine causes depletion of monoamines, the other major antipsychotic drugs, the ones that are now in general use ,such as chlorpromazine, did not cause depletion of the amines, so we wondered how they could act. We discovered in 1963, for the first time, an effect of chlorpromazine, haloperidol and similar agents on dopamine and noradrenaline metabolism, that turned out to be in the direction of stimulation. This was opposite, in terms of function, to what reserpine did. On the basis of that and a number of other observations at that time, we proposed that chlorpromazine and haloperidol block dopamine receptors, rather than depleting the neurotransmitter. The outcome would be similar whether you give reserpine to cause depletion of the catecholamines or give chlorpromazine to cause blockade of dopamine and noradrenaline receptors. Further along, when our studies continued and others came in, it turned out that dopamine seemed to be more important than noradrenaline, even if we still could not exclude a contribution by noradrenaline.

WB: Wasn’t this one of the major pillars and pioneering sort of framework upon which people started to think about mechanisms of action of antipsychotics?

AC: Yes, absolutely, and the antidepressants were discussed in similar terms.

WB: But, this was another first.

AC: That’s right; the antidepressants came in somewhat later. First came iproniazid, which was a monoamine oxidase inhibitor that Nathan Kline had found was an antidepressant and then came imipramine and it was in the early 1960’s that the first observations on an effect of imipramine on noradrenaline uptake was reported.

WB: And, some of that was done in Brodie’s lab, too, wasn’t it?

AC: The first observations concerning uptake of norepinephrine in the brain were in Brodie’s lab and he was very much interested in that and had the idea imipramine didn’t act on its own but was a pro-drug. They suggested that it was desipramine that was active. That was based on some behavioral experiments done in his lab.

WB: OK, then what happened in your career? What were the other high points?

AC: We worked for a long time to pursue our catecholamine work, but an entirely different thing came up a little later and went back to serotonin. What we found was that imipramine did not only block the re-uptake of noradrenaline but also serotonin. We went through quite a long series of tricyclic antidepressants and found that practically all of them had effects on both the uptake of noradrenaline and serotonin, but there were differences. There was one compound, chlorimipramine, that was particularly strong in its action on serotonin, so we were very excited about that and I still remember I went down to Geigy in Basel and told them this is a compound you should bring to the clinic. They didn’t believe much in it. They had another candidate, but, fortunately, the other candidate turned out to have a problem in toxicity, so they did develop chlorimipramine and it turned out to have a very interesting pharmacological profile, different, for example, from imipramine.

WB: Was it effective in depression and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)?

AC: That’s right. That was the most important part with chlorimipramine, the whole area of anxiety, panic disorder and OCD. Regarding OCD, that was the first time one had a drug that really could do anything in this disorder. We started to look at other types of molecules to see whether they could have an effect on the uptake of serotonin and came across a series of antihistaminic compounds; one of them was brompheniramine. That compound turned out to be especially powerful. Like many other antihistamines it acted both on serotonin and noradrenaline re-uptake, but brompheniramine was relatively strong on serotonin. I collaborated with a very clever Swiss organic chemist, who was working in Sweden at the Astra Company and, together, we modified brompheniramine on two sites and, as a result, we came to zimelidine. Zimelidine was the first selective serotonin uptake inhibitor (SSRI). In clinical testing it was found to be an antidepressant and, later on, also found to be a powerful drug in panic disorders. I am not sure if they collected data also on OCD but I think they did. Unfortunately, zimelidine turned out to have a rare but serious side effect, so the Astra Company decided to withdraw the compound. In contrast to the tricyclic antidepressants, zimelidine didn’t exert any anticholinergic action or cardiotoxicity.

WB: So, zimelidine was really the first in the family of the SSRI’s?

AC: Absolutely.

WB: It was the prototype.

AC: It was the prototype for Prozac, for example. At Eli Lilly, they started to work on Prozac at about the time we submitted the first patent for zimelidine.

WB: OK, what happened next?

AC: What I would like to talk about is our interest in neurocircuitries. We started out from dopamine as a platform to see how dopamine interacts with other neurotransmitters. In that context we became interested in glutamate. We got into this at a very early stage at a little group of which both of us are members, which has a meeting in the Caribbean every year. Actually, at that time, I remember the NMDA receptor had just been characterized and that phencyclidine had been found by Lodge and his colleagues to block the NMDA receptor. At one of these meetings in the Caribbean, I learned from you that phencyclidine is even more powerful than the amphetamines in mimicking schizophrenia, especially with respect to the negative symptoms. On that basis, we developed a scheme which started to evolve. According to this glutamate and dopamine are powerful controlling agents in the basal ganglia in the sense that they are antagonizing each other. The basal ganglia, in turn, control the thalamus, which we thought could work as a filter, and this could be important in the pathogenesis of psychosis. If this filter opens up too much the sensory input will overload the cerebral cortex and that might lead to psychosis. That was the concept of a circuitry from which we started out. Later on, when I started to test it pharmacologically, together with Maria Carlsson, we found much support for it, but also that it was more complicated. We had evidence that glutamate and dopamine can, under certain conditions, act in concert so there are pathways where they oppose each other and other pathways where they operate together.

WB: Which drugs did you study?

AC: There is no doubt that it was reserpine that was the starting point for our research and it’s interesting that we have been using it ever since. Many people felt this is an obsolete drug, even in research, but we don’t agree. I think reserpine is the drug of choice, if you really want to cause a depletion of the monaminergic system and monaminergic pathways and be sure you can disregard the presynaptic monaminergic mechanisms. There is no other way, really, of being absolutely sure than to give reserpine and add inhibitors of the synthesis of these amines.

WB: You’ve listed a number of the famous people who’ve had impacts on your career. Are there others that should be mentioned?

AC: Well, I did mention the most important ones: Brodie, Hillarp, and Corrody. I’ve had, of course, lots of collaborators who have been very important to me.

WB: What do you think was your most significant contribution?

AC: I really don’t know. I think I have been so excited all the way along by the various things that showed up.

WB: All right. How did you stay in the field and do science, rather than taking administrative jobs which I’m sure were offered to you on many occasions?

AC: I was very energetic in that context. I insisted that my secretary should do the work that I was supposed to do, so whenever one of those brown envelopes came, I gave it to her and I’d say I couldn’t care less about it; you take care of it. So, I stayed out of administration. I was on a couple of faculty committees but I didn’t please the other members, so I got out of them rather soon.

WB: Are you happy with the way things turned out for you?

AC: Yes, I must say I have been very lucky in many respects. I was lucky at the very outset to get to this fabulous laboratory, and, then, to meet such wonderful people, like those I have mentioned already. So, yes, I have been fortunate and I am very pleased.

WB: Where do you see this field going in the next 5 or 10 years, and what new drugs might be developed? What illnesses might be treated?

AC: I have the feeling that in the area of depression, affective disorders and anxiety disorders, there have been really significant advances during the last few decades; in contrast, in the area of psychosis, where progress has been less striking. So I think that the most likely area where we are going to see some real breakthroughs is in the area of psychosis and schizophrenia. And, we see some signs of that already. I think that clozapine has opened up very interesting new avenues and points to the importance of neurotransmitters other than dopamine. Especially, serotonin is coming into the picture of psychosis in a very interesting manner. This is one avenue where some progress is now underway with new drugs that are clozapine-like, yet not toxic like clozapine. They seem to offer promise, even though I think that it’s not going to be a very great step, but still significant in comparison to the drugs available now. Then, I think other new principles of different kinds will be related to glutamate. Furthermore, the newly discovered receptor subtypes have to be considered. We have the area of partial agonists that I believe are very promising.

WB: You’ve done a fair amount of work on partial dopamine receptor agonists such as 3PPP.

AC: That’s one of my favorite areas, actually. And a clean 5HT2 receptor antagonist; one such compound is actually now being tested in the clinic in schizophrenia. So there are at least three or four areas that offer great promise. Within the next 5 or 10 years, there has to be a breakthrough. I consider it almost unthinkable that all these four should be failures.

WB: What are the four again?

AC: It will be the mixed kind that clozapine offers with drugs such as olanzapine. That is number one. That is closest. We are almost there. Then, the pure 5HT2 antagonists, this is probably somewhat related to clozapine, but still different. We have the partial dopamine receptor agonists and, finally, we have the whole new area of glutamates. These receptors, for example, the NMDA receptor, is a very complicated receptor with many different binding sites that offers enormous possibilities. I mean, a lot remains to be done to characterize this receptor with its subunits and possible subtypes. You have one binding site where glutamate comes in. You have another one where glycine sits. There is a lot of effort now ongoing in the area of the glycine site. If we look a little bit more ahead, maybe, 10 years from now, I wouldn’t be surprised if the glutamate area is going to be very important in the field of psychosis.

WB: Are there any other issues that we should have covered?

AC: I might like to talk a little bit about some of our post mortem studies, which I think are interesting. What we did was to examine various monaminergic indices, in other words, levels of dopamine, noradrenaline, serotonin and their metabolites and precursors in post mortem brains, in schizophrenics as well as in controls. And, we did first conventional statistics on the measurements we had done and didn’t find much. Then came a young man who was very talented in multivariate analysis who fed all the data into a computer and used some clever programs; out came patterns in which all these variables were viewed at one time, a multi-dimensional body that could be projected to a two dimensional picture to see whether there were any clusters. What showed up was one area where you had all the controls and two others where you had the schizophrenics that were quite different from each other. One of them turned out to be paranoid and the other one non-paranoid schizophrenic. So, from that starting point, I very strongly believe in the methodology of multivariate analysis and we’re using it, not only on post mortem material, but also in our preclinical work. For example, I had the privilege of having in my group a number of clever organic chemists. They are synthesizing compounds for us and if you wish to characterize the pharmacological profile of the various compounds on behavior or the chemistry of the brain, then, multivariate analysis is extremely powerful and I think should be used a lot more.

WB: Any other areas?

AC: I think we’ll stop now.

WB: OK. Let me just say that Dr. Arvid Carlsson is, in my view, one of the pioneers in the field of neuropsychopharmacology. He was recently selected for the Japan Prize among all neuroscientists and individuals in psychology and psychiatry and I consider that a great honor, well deserved, and a timely recognition of his pioneering contributions to the field of neuropsychopharmacology and to neuroscience.

AC: Thank you.

 Arvid Carlsson was born in Uppsala, Sweden in 1923.

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