September 9, 2003

UCSD Psychiatrist Receives 2003 Ellis Island Medal of Honor

Hagop Akiskal, M.D.

Hagop Akiskal, M.D., professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) School of Medicine and director of the International Mood Center at the VA San Diego Healthcare System, has received the prestigious 2003 Ellis Island Medal of Honor for exceptional service and professional contributions to the United States.

The award is given annually to Americans of diverse ethnic or national origin by the National Ethnic Coalition of Organizations (NECO). Honorees typically include U.S. Presidents, Nobel Prize winners, leaders of industry and other professions, gifted artists, performers and athletes. The names of this year’s 131 recipients are engraved in the U.S. Congressional Record.

A pioneer in outpatient mood disorders, Akiskal’s integrative approach to depression, featured in the journals Science (1973) and Archives of General Psychiatry (1975), is among the most cited in the medical literature. Early in his career, Akiskal conducted definitive clinical and sleep-EEG studies that helped establish dysthymic (chronic mildly depressed or irritable mood) and other chronic depressions as valid and treatable mood disorders. His subsequent research on cyclothymic and related sub-threshold mood disorders challenged many assumptions about the nature of personality disorders. This work also paved the way for understanding the childhood variants and precursors of bipolar disorders.

Akiskal’s current research examines the relationship of sub-clinical temperament traits to various affective disorders, with special focus on mania, hypomania, depressive mixed states, anxious bipolarity and the soft bipolar spectrum. He serves on the steering committee of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) Collaborative Depression Study and, in addition, has developed large collaborative networks with psychiatric centers, particularly in Italy, France and Germany, to characterize the bipolar spectrum. This concept, which has redefined as bipolar much of the domain of recurrent depressions, is a rapidly growing paradigm in psychiatry in both the U.S. and abroad. This is reflected in Akiskal’s inclusion in the Philadelphia Institute of Scientific Information’s “Highly Cited Researcher” category, an honor restricted to scientists with enduring citations (less than 0.5 percent of all publishing scientists in all fields).

Born in Lebanon of Armenian parents, Akiskal obtained his medical degree from the American University of Beirut, and received psychiatric training at the Universities of Tennessee, Memphis and Wisconsin, Madison. His past positions include professor of psychiatry and pharmacology at the University of Tennessee from 1972-1990, and senior science advisor to the director of the National Institute of Mental Health from 1990-94.

Fluent in five languages, Akiskal has been invited to lecture in over 250 universities in 48 countries. He led a mental health team to Armenia in 1988, following a devastating earthquake. He thereby got involved in systematic studies of individual and community responses to disasters, a topic he now teaches at UCSD. In the summer of 1997, he served as a special advisor to the director of the World Health Organization’s Division of Mental Health in Geneva, and in 1999 the American Psychiatric Association honored him with a special Presidential Commendation. Akiskal is a fellow or honorary member of many U.S. and foreign professional societies, and presently chairs the section of Private Practice of the World Psychiatric Association.

Among his many honors have been the Gold Medal for Pioneer Research from the Society of Biological Psychiatry and the German Anna Monika Prize for Depression. More recently, he has received the Nola Maddox Falcone Prize for Outstanding Achievement in Affective Disorders Research, from the National Alliance for Research on Schizophrenia and Affective Disorders (NARSAD); the Jean Delay Prize for fostering international collaborative research and bridging biological and psychosocial approaches in affective disorders, from the World Psychiatric Association; and the Prix Baillarger for the “Ensemble of his Work on Bipolar Disorder” which has influenced French psychiatry, from the Société Médico-Psychologique, Paris. This year, he received the Aretaeus Prize for “fundamental clinical contributions in the bipolar spectrum,” from the Aretaeus Society, Rome; the DeLisio Prize for his “influence on Italian psychiatry in the field of bipolar disorders,” from the Institute of Science of Behavior, Pisa; and a Doctor Honoris Causa from the University of Lisbon, Portugal.

The author of more than 500 scientific articles and 20 books, Akiskal is currently the editor of the Journal of Affective Disorders.

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