Irving Kupfermann, Professor of Physiology and Cellular Biophysics and of Psychiatry in the Center for Neurobiology & Behavior at Columbia University and Research Scientist at the New York State Psychiatric Institute, died of Creutzfeld-Jacob Disease on February 19, 2002 at his home in Port Washington. Dr. Kupfermann was a pioneer in studying the cellular basis of motivation and a leader in the study of feeding behavior.
Irving Kupfermann was born on January 26, 1938, in New York City. He received his undergraduate training at the University of Florida and his Ph.D. in biopsychology at the University of Chicago. In 1965, he joined Eric Kandel's laboratory then at Harvard with the aim of applying cellular methods to study behavior and learning. In 1966 he moved with the Kandel group to New York University Medical School where he made several remarkable discoveries. First, he discovered the egg-laying hormone, a neuropeptide that is released from a cluster of neuroendocrine cells in the abdominal ganglion of the marine mollusk Aplysia. Second, together with Harry Pinsker, Vincent Castellucci, and Kandel, he delineated the neural circuit for several defensive reflexes. Each of these studies laid the foundation for later work, and each had a profound influence on the initial cellular approaches to the study of behavior and learning.
Kupfermann then set up his own laboratory in 1970 first at New York University and then at Columbia University where he studied the cell biological basis of motivational states focusing on feeding behavior of Aplysia. The aim of these studies was to examine how motivation arises from neural machinery. To this end, Kupfermann was one of the few scientists who used a multidisciplinary approach to study both behavior and the cell biology and physiology of the nervous system. He believed that the neural basis of behavior could not be understood by giving short shrift to either. His work was unique and groundbreaking because he consistently was able to show the behavioral relevance of neural mechanisms.
Over the past 30 years, Kupfermann and his colleagues made many seminal experimental discoveries and introduced several concepts that profoundly affected the neurosciences. First, he showed that motivational variables control the feeding behavior of a relatively simple animal with an experimentally accessible nervous system, Aplysia. Second, he showed that some of the key properties of the motivational control of behavior can be explained by the action of modulatory nerve cells that do not initiate a behavior, but rather control its intensity. These studies were precursors of much subsequent work by others in higher animals on modulatory nerve cells. Third, he showed that many aspects of behavioral modulation are achieved by peptide co-transmitters, which are released along with classical neurotransmitters. Fourth, his work helped establish that behavioral modulation is effected through the activation of common second messenger systems. Fifth, he showed that behaviors could be initiated by a small group of nerve cells, which together decide on whether specific aspects of a behavior should occur. His studies on the command and initiation of behavior had wide influence.
Irving's calm and gentle personality affected everyone who knew him. He brought unique insight and an analytical approach to every problem—including the search for the perfect golf swing. He delighted friends and colleagues with a never-ending stream of puns. He had a profound sense of inner composure and appeared to be at peace with the world, fully cognizant of its problems, but always able to keep them in emotional perspective.
Irving is survived by his wife of 37 years, Kerstin Kupfermann, who is a clinical psychologist, a son David of Alma, CO, a daughter Celina Poole, of Del Ray Beach, FL, and grandson Justin.