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The Prince of Pain
The Prize

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Full 1997
The Prince of Pain
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The lab's senior member, David Mayer, mapped out the brain sites that seemed to turn off the pain, determined the right frequency to produce the effect and, with Liebeskind, prepared a paper on this stimulation-produced analgesia (SPA) for the journal Science. "John was an excellent writer, obsessive-compulsive about it," says Mayer, now a professor of anesthesiology, physiology and anatomy at Medical College of Virginia. "We would argue and argue about a single word. He spent an incredible amount of time agonizing over these things, and I think this helped us articulate the two major insights in that paper."

The first of these, Mayer's, was that the stimulation didn't turn off nerves, but rather turned on a system that was already there -- a well-organized, separate, internal pain-killing apparatus. He speculated that a narcotic like morphine actually engaged the exact same machinery. The second insight, this one Liebeskind's, was that all of this pain-killing was happening not in the brain but in the spinal chord.

What Liebeskind and Mayer were suggesting was unheard of -- that the body produces its own opiate-like drugs and that the brain could administer these drugs to powerful effect. Few scientists were convinced. No one could explain how such an internal drug-delivery system would work, and evidence that it existed at all was paltry. Those who did believe -- John Hughes and Hans Kosterlitz at the University of Aberdeen, Avram Goldstien at Stanford, to name several -- were already scrambling to isolate natural painkillers in the brain, working largely on instinct and faith. Liebeskind's data not only confirmed they were on the right track, it pointed to where the numbing process was taking place, allowing them to map those opiate receptor sites. A year later in 1972, when Huda Akil presented data confirming Liebeskind and Mayer's suspicions, John Hughes was about to make history with his isolation of enkaphalin -- the first of the so-called endorphins.

There was, however, a small problem with Liebeskind's masterpiece: Science had rejected it. It was interesting, the reviewers said. There was nothing wrong with the methodology. But it wasn't about to set the world on fire.

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