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Secret of Longevity: No Food, No Husband, No Regrets

Secret of Longevity: No Food, No Husband, No Regrets

Brain scientist and Nobel laureate Rita Levi-Montalcini (Photo: Audrey Sel, CreativeCommons)

Richard Owen | The Times

April 30, 2009

Brain scientist and Nobel laureate Rita Levi-Montalcini tells Richard Owen why she wants to forget turning 100

“The professoressa is a bit tired,” an adviser to Rita Levi-Montalcini warned me as I prepared to interview Italy’s Nobel prize-winning Life Senator on the eve of her 100th birthday. “Don’t wear her out.”

I arrive to find the professoressa, as she is universally known, in the dress shop below her office in Rome, in an elegant black dress buttoned to the neck and a gold brooch of her own design, white hair immaculately coiffed, examining the rails of clothes with close and lively attention.

She is about to catch a plane for Sicily, she says, to address a conference, but can spare some time. In the office Levi-Montalcini, a diminutive, bird-like figure with an alert manner and engaging smile, speaks for more than an hour with an insight, stamina and sharp intellect that someone half her age would envy. Tired at 100? I don’t think so — but pessimistic, yes. This astonishing woman — who studied medicine, survived Fascism and prejudice, and went on to win the Nobel Prize in 1986, who still takes an active part in politics in the Senate, is planning another book and campaigning for the rights of women in Africa — thinks we are all doomed.

For Rita Levi-Montalcini is a global expert on the brain. She founded the European Brain Research Institute (EBRI) in Rome five years ago, and marked her 100th birthday last Wednesday not with a party but with an EBRI seminar at Rome’s city hall on Capitol Hill, entitled “The Brain in Health and Disease”, with speakers from all over the world. She herself delivered the opening remarks. “The brain has two hemispheres” she says, “one ancient or archaic, which governs our emotions and instincts, the other younger, which governs our capacity to reason. Today the archaic brain tends to dominate. It is the cause of all the tragedies that happen like the Shoah (the Holocaust) and it is putting an end to humanity today. It was the part of our brains which got us down from the trees, but it is the cause of all the disasters and the cause of the great danger to our planet today. It is taking the human race toward extinction. The end is already at hand.”

Crikey. Is there no hope?

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  • Photo_user_blank_big


    about 2 years ago


    There is more to life than increasing its length, or its speed. In echoing the comments of Sarah Waters (below), I find Miss Montalcini's single mindedness inspirational, but ultimately unappealing. The analytical life, while offering the comfort of certainty and the stimulation of discovery, is ultimately only half a life, I think. Admirable that she could do it for so long, but seemingly filled with a loneliness so long borne that the pathways to feel loneliness have themselves atrophied away....laving nothing more than a neural echo. The brain is ultimately malleable and self programmable. That is the deepest mystery of the brain. 100 years of research into nerve growth factor is the unraveling of 1 million years of evolutionary protein building. Amazing, but reductionist. The bigger mysteries remain. "Why and how do we love?", for example. It will take a greater, and broader genius than Miss Montalcini to explain that to us.

  • Photo_user_blank_big


    about 2 years ago


    She has accomplished a big first discovery in cell biology, but some of what she says is off a bit. There are anatomical differences between the male and female brain, perhaps even"genetically" if the sex chromosomes trigger these differences. She may want to believe that there is no difference between the male and female brain (for some obscure reason), but there is a ton of scientific research that says otherwise.

    I also found it off-putting that she only employs an "all female" team of researchers, and focuses on only helping women. I got a PhD in a Cell Biology related field, so I know that a lot of the big discoveries are sometimes just luck, or working with the right people who are on to something. It is more tinkering, than being an "Einstein" per se. Her mentor was a man, but she obviously works towards a sort of narrow goal—helping just women succeed in science. I've had some female mentors who obviously are biased towards helping women.

    I also think that her left brain/right brain diatribe against society is more than a little bit simplistic. Most other 90+ scientists seem to be a lot more optimistic, but she seems sort of aloof, and even angry, in how she answers questions regarding religion and other matters. Even bizarre is her comment that not everybody should live to 100, not enough room for babies! Many brillaint scientists often bungle and trip over themselves when they make the incorrect assumption that their scientific achievement means they should start commenting on society.

    Of course I would love to have a conversation with her, but I can't help but feel that due to her life experiences, and her personality, she has a warped view of the world. She appears to be highly intelligent, but promulgates the "looking out for her own attitude" of just helping women scientists. It is sad that though she is highly intelligent, she has no children to pass on her genes.

  • Photo_user_blank_big


    about 5 years ago


    amazing lady

  • Photo_user_blank_big


    over 5 years ago


    What a beautiful mind! My wish for the Professora is that she live to 120. Our world need her wisdom.

  • Photo_user_blank_big

    Account Removed

    over 5 years ago

    What an amazing woman!

  • Photo_user_blank_big


    over 5 years ago


    I enjoyed the interview. I would like more in-depth stories about this type of woman. More why's and how's would be wonderful, in order to allow us a clearer view of their perspective and personal history. This is a woman I would want to spend the day with - just listening!!

  • 11t_max50


    over 5 years ago


    Remarkable. What a lady. How come we don't hear more about her?

  • Snapshot_20080822_4_max50


    over 5 years ago


    A good article, i do not force my opinions on people, but i have to preach God for he lives. all i can say is please, please believe in God for he is real and exists and you will be meeting him soon. Thank you.

  • Copy_of_kerry_pic_2_max50


    over 5 years ago


    I am glad to see someone featured who isn't married with children showing that it is possible for a woman to have a successful, happy and fulfilling life without marriage.

  • Img_0732_max50


    over 5 years ago


    I loved the article. We need more of these stories about women like her. She has accomplished so much. I love reading about research on the brain. Her work could impact the world even more than Bill Gates. Yet I have never heard of Professora Levi-Montalcini. I would have remembered a Nightly News story like that.

  • Picture_or_video_010_max50


    over 5 years ago


    I like women who have spirit and basically tell it like it is. In some ways Miss Montalcini reminds me of my grandmother, she was like that very independent and sees alot of good in people. and my grandmother liked to help people. But she encouraged her daughters to go to school and achieve their dreams as well as her sons.
    As for Professora Montalcini I would love to learn from her first hand what she is teaching and too bad she can't come over here in the U.S. to give a lecture on her subject so everybody could learn from her. Even the men can learn from her too. :D Gap50_75

  • Greenleaf_max50


    over 5 years ago


    She's so inspiring! Wow.

  • Me_max50


    over 5 years ago


    Interesting article. From my reading in Women's Literature, many women thought at the time, that a marriage of this kind wasn't for them and chose not to marry or go into a convent. Today, there are some good men who would not stiffle you as most men did in the past. Keeping the brain active, definitely!! And the body healthy, another definite. I think it's what and how much we eat today that keeps a lot of our bodies in unhealthy conditions.

  • Photo_040908_001_max50


    over 5 years ago


    Such a great inspiring article. I would give anything to interview her!! What spunk and zest for life ~ Thanks for the dosage!!

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