Dr. Arvid Carlsson—in memoriam (1923-2018)

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Arvid Carlsson, 1923-2018

The body functions of man and animals are controlled by electric and chemical signals between the cells in our nervous system. Contacts between cells are called synapses, and special substances, called neurotransmitters, send the signals. Arvid Carlsson discovered a neurotransmitter called dopamine in the brain and described its role in our ability to move. This led to the realization that Parkinson’s disease is caused by a lack of dopamine, allowing for the development of drugs for the disease.

Arvid Carlsson grew up in a middle-class family—his father held a PhD and was a professor of history at the University of Lund, Sweden. His mother had a master-of-arts but gave priority to raising her children and to assisting her husband in his research. When her husband died at the age of 76, she started to devote herself entirely to her favourite area of research—the legal status of women in the Middle Ages in Sweden. She published two books and a number of articles on this subject in Swedish, and was recognized with an honorary Ph.D. degree at the University of Uppsala several years later.

All four Carlsson children earned academic degrees at different levels. The family had a strong orientation toward humanities. The two eldest siblings chose humanities, while Arvid and his younger brother focused on medicine.

Carlsson studied medicine and pharmacology at the University of Lund and completed his doctoral thesis in 1951. At that time, a scholarly committee told him that the subject of his thesis—calcium metabolism—wasn’t particularly pharmacological, let alone interesting.

Little did they know they were evaluating a future Nobel Prize winner.

Carlsson asked a University of Lund researcher if he could recommend anyone working at a “chemically oriented” pharmacology lab. The request brought him to the National Heart Institute (now the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute), where he collaborated with Dr. Bernard B. Brodie, a boxer turned biochemist, and began the research that would bring him the Nobel Prize.

In animal experiments, he showed that low levels of dopamine impaired the ability to move. When Carlsson treated dopamine-depleted animals with the amino-acid levodopa (L-dopa), the symptoms disappeared, and the animals moved normally once again. This led to the use of L-dopa as a treatment for Parkinson’s disease, and it eventually became the single most important medication for the disease. Carlsson’s work also contributed to an understanding of the relationship between neurotransmitters and mental states, and further led to the introduction of new antidepressant drugs.

For his work on dopamine, Carlsson was awarded (one third of) the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2000, together with his researcher colleagues Eric Kandel and Paul Greengard. Their results helped resolve a debate over whether signals in the brain were transmitted mainly through electricity, as was previously believed, or through chemicals known as neurotransmitters.

“Dopamine is involved in everything that happens in our brain, all the important functions,” he said in a 2016 podcast with the Sahlgrenska Academy. “If you look at the number of citations dealing with dopamine, over the decades, it was going up all the time, dramatically, and finally it was so high that the Nobel assembly couldn’t avoid me.”

In addition to his wife, survivors include four children (their youngest son, Magnus, died in 2015), 12 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren. Carlsson was 95.

Parkinson Canada applauds the many significant contributions of the late Dr. Arvid Carlsson. To read more about his research and to watch videotaped interviews, visit: