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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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