2021 O’Donnell Award in Medicine: Benjamin Arenkiel, Ph.D.
Baylor College of Medicine Neuroscientist and Geneticist Benjamin Arenkiel, Ph.D., Recognized for Research on Addiction and Eating Disorders
HOUSTON – Baylor College of Medicine Neuroscientist and Geneticist Benjamin Arenkiel, Ph.D., is the recipient of the 2021 Edith and Peter O’Donnell Award in Medicine from TAMEST (The Academy of Medicine, Engineering and Science of Texas). He was chosen for his breakthrough identification of the brain’s neural pathways that are connected to eating disorders, addiction and other neuropsychiatric disorders.
By understanding the makeup of neural circuits and how they talk to each other, Dr. Arenkiel’s team identified a convergent brain circuit that combines sensory perceptions and motivational state. They found that when basal forebrain circuits are disrupted, it leads to behaviors ranging from anxiety, anorexia, addiction and more.
Dr. Arenkiel showed how scientists might use this knowledge to treat severe eating disorders, obesity and addictive behaviors by manipulating the acetylcholine signals initiating such behavior in the basal forebrain. His research shows how replacing or rerouting information around the “bad spots” of the brain can allow the restoration of normal cell function.
“Some disorders cannot be repaired with a pill, and they may be best repaired by identifying and activating an alternate circuit to repair dysfunction, eliminate addiction or change behavior,” said Huda Y. Zoghbi, M.D. (NAM, NAS), Professor of Molecular and Human Genetics at Baylor College of Medicine and Director of the Jan and Dan Duncan Neurological Research Institute at Texas Children’s Hospital. “To me, the brilliance in Dr. Arenkiel’s discoveries is his framework for understanding the neural pathways in the brain and the opportunity to make a really big difference by focusing on manipulating and bypassing altered circuits, which could make up for their deficiencies in addiction, anxiety and many other neuropsychiatric disorders.”
Dr. Arenkiel, Associate Professor at Baylor College of Medicine, is one of four Texas-based scientists receiving the TAMEST 2021 Edith and Peter O’Donnell Awards for their individual contributions addressing the essential role that science and technology play in society, and whose work meets the highest standards of exemplary professional performance, creativity and resourcefulness.
“We are honored to present Dr. Arenkiel with the 2021 O’Donnell Award in Medicine for his understanding of how pathways in the brain trigger changes in behavior,” said David E. Daniel, Ph.D. (NAE), 2021 TAMEST Board President. “Addiction alone affects the lives of millions of Americans every year, and Dr. Arenkiel’s research hopes to offer a new way forward for how we battle such diseases.”
Dr. Arenkiel was recognized at the 2021 O’Donnell Awards virtual ceremony on Wednesday, January 13 at 4 p.m. CT and gave a subsequent virtual talk on his groundbreaking research on January 27, 2021. Video of the presentation as well as Dr. Arenkiel’s slides are available below.
2021 Edith and Peter O’Donnell Award Recipient Research Presentation: Medicine
Moderator: Malcolm K. Brenner, M.D., Ph.D. (NAM)
2021 Edith and Peter O’Donnell Award in Medicine Subcommittee Chair
Baylor College of Medicine
The Edith and Peter O’Donnell Awards annually recognize rising Texas researchers who are addressing the essential role that science and technology play in society, and whose work meets the highest standards of exemplary professional performance, creativity and resourcefulness.
Over $1 million has been awarded to more than 50 recipients in the categories of medicine, engineering, science and technology innovation since the inception of the O’Donnell Awards in 2006. Fifteen O’Donnell Awards Recipients have gone on to be elected to the National Academies, including three in 2020.
TAMEST was co-founded in 2004 by the Honorable Kay Bailey Hutchison and Nobel Laureates Michael S. Brown, M.D., and Richard E. Smalley, Ph.D. With more than 300 members and 18 member institutions, TAMEST is composed of the Texas-based members of the three National Academies (National Academy of Medicine, National Academy of Engineering and National Academy of Sciences), the Royal Society and the state’s 11 Nobel Laureates. We bring together the state’s brightest minds in medicine, engineering, science and technology to foster collaboration, and to advance research, innovation and business in Texas.
TAMEST’s unique interdisciplinary model has become an effective recruitment tool for top research and development centers across Texas. Since our founding, more than 225 TAMEST members have been inducted into the National Academies or relocated to Texas.