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Faculty Profile: Herbert Y. Meltzer, MD, Professor in Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences and Neuroscience

Herbert Meltzer, MD

Over the course of 50 years, Herbert Meltzer, MD, professor in psychiatry and behavioral sciences and neuroscience, has followed the science.His career in medicine, which spans six decades, has taken him to four universities, resulted in many honors, and brought the world a breakthrough discovery that eventually led to development of the most commonly used drugs for schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

Today, as director of the Translational Neuropharmacology Program at Feinberg, science is still in the driver’s seat.

“Research generates more questions than answers, as it should, and it has become my defining characteristic,” Meltzer said. “That statement is no less true today than it was when I began as a medical student at Yale.”

Beyond various leadership positions at each stop in his career, Meltzer has served as president of the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology (ACNP) and the Collegium International Neuro-psychopharmacologicum (CINP). He has also been an editorial board member at numerous scientific journals. 

A psychopharmacologist and biological psychiatrist looking for the common cause of bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, Meltzer’s career is highlighted by his discovery that the drug Clozapine can be used on patients with severe treatment-resistant schizophrenia. In the early 2000s, Meltzer proved that the drug can also be used to reduce the risk of suicide in patients with schizophrenia.   

What are your research interests?
My research interests at the current time are in understanding the basis for the cognitive impairment in schizophrenia and developing ways to prevent it; improving the practice of care for patients with the advances in treatment I and others have developed; and understanding how serotonergic mechanisms influence psychosis and cognition.

The ultimate goal of my research is to develop new drug treatments for the cognitive impairment of schizophrenia.

How does your research advance medical science and knowledge?
By carrying out clinical trials that produce solid knowledge that is useful to improve treatment outcomes and by developing knowledge of brain mechanisms that facilitates the research of others.  

At what point in your life did you become interested in medicine?
I became interested in college, but could not decide between graduate school in chemistry and medical school. I accepted a fellowship in organic chemistry at Harvard but during the first year, realized it would not fulfill the part of me I associated with being a doctor and helping people directly to overcome illness. It was during medical school that I realized psychiatry, specifically a mix of clinical care and research on schizophrenia and its causes, would be right for me.

How is your research funded?
My research was once funded mainly by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) but now is funded mainly by industry and donations. This is because I am so interested in translating my research into clinical practice, something NIMH does not fund as well. 

What types of collaborations are you engaged in across campus?
I am collaborating with faculty in psychiatry and behavioral sciences, neuroscience, molecular pharmacology and biochemistry, pediatrics, and the Center for Life Processes.  I have found collaboration at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine the best of any of the four universities I have been a part of. It is an extraordinary feature of Northwestern.

Which honors are you most proud of and why?
I am most proud of the awards I received from the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology, the American Psychiatric Association, the American Society for Suicide Prevention, the Brain and Behavior Research Foundation, and Vanderbilt University. These awards reflect the contributions I made that are very important for the practice of psychiatry, leading to life-saving and life-enhancing benefit to millions of people.

Did you ever imagine you’d be where you are today?
After two years of research training at the National Institute of Mental Health, I accepted an offer from the University of Chicago to develop a research program in schizophrenia. When I started I was very uncertain about my abilities and did not anticipate the success I eventually achieved. I derived enormous satisfaction from seeing my work as a clinician lead to helping people with psychosis and having my research produce publishable data. 

Do you have any hobbies?
My major interests outside of medicine are music, especially jazz and symphonic music. I play the piano a bit. I also collect photography. I love to travel and have visited more than 50 countries, many as part of my research.