Huda Akil, Ph.D., received the nation’s highest scientific honor recently – the National Medal of Science — for her discoveries about the roots of emotions, depression, pain and addiction in brain biology.

Akil’s early work focused on understanding the brain’s own “natural painkillers” — called endogenous opioids — and how they interact with receptors on the surface of brain cells. Her team’s discoveries about these molecules and receptors laid the groundwork for many other scientists’ work to this day.

From there, Akil’s research grew into an exploration of the impacts of stress on the brain at the molecular level, and the genetic and cellular differences that may make someone more or less vulnerable to developing depression, anxiety or substance use disorders including opioid addiction.

Taken together, Akil says she believes the findings made by her team should give a message of hope about mental health.

With policymakers at every level now focused on the rising rates and impacts of mental health conditions, the crisis of overdose deaths, and the need for more evidence-based care, she says now is the time for scientists to engage publicly.

“Science needs to partner with every facet of society, locally, nationally, and globally to fight these illnesses with every tool we have, while continuing to advance our knowledge and develop new strategies for better prevention and treatment.”

View the full release as written by Kara Gavin