Noted Yale Neurobiologist Melvin Cohen Dies in California

Melvin J. Cohen, professor emeritus of biology at Yale University and a noted neurobiologist, died Feb. 22 in Berkeley, Calif. A member of the prestigious National Academy of Sciences, he was 69 years old and was affiliated with Yale for 29 years.

Professor Cohen’s research focused on elements influencing the shape of nerve cells and the pattern of synaptic connections between them, especially in injured neurons in the central nervous system of the lamprey, a primitive fish. He and his colleagues used computer-enhanced images to monitor growing neurons in the living brain and spinal cord of the lamprey, thus charting their regeneration after injury.

He also noted that electric current applied to injured axons in the lamprey’s spinal cord can prevent further nerve damage in the hours after spinal injury. He demonstrated in his Yale laboratory that axonal die-back following spinal injury is caused primarily by excess amounts of calcium ions, which can be blocked by direct electric current.

A native of California, he received his bachelor’s, master’s and Ph.D. degrees from the University of California at Los Angeles. He was an instructor at Harvard University 1955-1957 before joining the biology department at the University of Oregon, where he was a professor until joining the Yale faculty in 1969. While at the University of Oregon, he received a Guggenheim Fellowship 1964-1965 to study at Oxford University, England, and a special fellowship in 1965 from the U.S. Public Health Service to work at the Institute of Marine Biology, Arcachon, of the University of Bordeaux, France.

At Yale, he served as director of undergraduate studies in biology 1986-1992, punctuated by semesters of research at Glasgow University, Scotland, and Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif. He also conducted research in the Laboratory of Pierre Changeux at the Pasteur Institute, Paris, and taught a course in neurobiology in 1989 at Hunan Medical University, China, under the auspices of the Yale-China Program. There, he collaborated with Professor T.P. Feng of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Shanghai.

In addition to his election to the National Academy of Sciences in 1975, Professor Cohen was president of the Society of General Physiologists 1976-1977. He was elected as a member of the International Brain Research Organization in 1977 and to fellowship in the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1978. Professor Cohen also was a member of the American Society of Zoologists, the Society of Neuroscience and the Society of Sigma Xi. He was a member of the editorial board of the journal Central Nervous System Trauma and of the editorial advisory board for the Encyclopedia of Neuroscience.

Survivors include his wife, Catherine, of Port Clyde, Maine, and Oakland, Calif.; two sons, Frank M. of New Haven and Sam of Oakland, Calif; two daughters, Renee C. Cohen of Rocky Hill, and Sarah R. van Hout-Cohen of Berkeley, Calif.; grandchildren Rebecca, Jyreh and Tala Cohen of New Haven; a sister, Sherlyn M. Scott of West Bloomfield, Mich.; a step-sister, Sally Morgan of Los Angeles; and a step-brother, Leon Levin of Simi Valley, Calif.

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