Pietro De Camilli, M.D., the John Klingenstein Professor of Neuroscience, professor of cell biology, and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, has been named chair of the Department of Neuroscience and director of the Kavli Institute for Neuroscience at Yale. His appointment in September 2015 coincided with a pledge by The Kavli Foundation to commit $5 million to the institute’s endowment, the third such commitment since the institute’s founding in 2004. The Foundation has contributed a total of more than $16 million to the endowment.

The California-based Kavli Foundation aims to promote research that will advance science for the benefit of humanity and increase public understanding and support for scientists and their work. The Kavli Institute for Neuroscience at Yale is one of seven Kavli-supported university institutes that specialize in neuroscience.

This boost to the Yale institute’s endowment is a part of the foundation’s campaign to advance the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative, a public-private research project launched by President Barack Obama in 2013.

“We are very pleased to join Yale in building the endowment of its Kavli Institute to an even higher level,” said Robert W. Conn, Ph.D., president and CEO of The Kavli Foundation. “This added investment will result in a substantially increased annual payout from Yale’s Kavli Institute endowment. The vast majority of these funds are unrestricted for use in advancing the basic science of the brain and will further empower Yale’s great scientists to explore their most exciting new ideas and proposals.”

The additional funding will support research and activities relevant to advancing the mission of the institute, according to De Camilli. The contribution will allow Yale’s large neuroscience-focused community “to be brought together to foster interdisciplinary research,” he says.

“Pietro De Camilli’s leadership appointments come at a time when neuroscience at Yale is solidifying and advancing,” said Dean and Ensign Professor of Medicine Robert J. Alpern, M.D. “His expertise is ideal for a department that covers basic neuroscience all the way to neuronal circuits and disease.” This broad scope is also reflected in the new name of the department. Until last October, the Department of Neuroscience was known as the Department of Neurobiology; the new name reflects its expanded scope.

For more than 30 years De Camilli has studied the dynamics of cell membranes in the nervous system. His research has illuminated the highly orchestrated series of events that leads to the release of neurotransmitters from nerve endings via membranous pouches, called synaptic vesicles, and to the reutilization of these pouches for multiple rounds of secretion. He has become a world-renowned expert on the mechanisms through which all cells secrete substances, take up material from the external environment, and transport it to appropriate intracellular destinations. He has also provided insight into pathological conditions resulting from genetic or autoimmune disruptions of these mechanisms.

In his most recent work, De Camilli has focused on the role of lipids, the main building block of cell membranes, in controlling the traffic and interactions of cell membrane organelles. His research has illuminated how lipids define the identity and properties of membranous organelles and revealed mechanisms underlying the exchange of lipids between them.

Most studies of nervous system function have addressed the role of proteins, but “less is known about lipids—their metabolism and transport,” De Camilli says. “This is a field wide open to new exploration.” Mutations that occur in enzymes that modify lipids or mediate their transport result in neurological and psychiatric conditions, including neurodegeneration.

A native of the lake region in northwestern Italy, De Camilli earned his medical degree at the University of Milan and completed postgraduate training at the University of Pavia. He came to Yale in 1978 as a postdoctoral fellow in the lab of the renowned pharmacologist Paul Greengard, who received the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine in 2000. In 1979 he was recruited by the late cell biologist George Palade, M.D., also a Nobel laureate, to what was then called the Section of Cell Biology and subsequently became the Department of Cell Biology. He served as chair of that department from 1997 to 2000.

In 2005 De Camilli co-founded, together with Stephen Strittmatter, M.D., Ph.D., the Vincent Coates Professor of Neurology and professor of neuroscience, the School of Medicine’s Program in Cellular Neuroscience, Neurodegeneration, and Repair. Since the beginning of De Camilli’s career, research in cell biology has inspired some of his new ideas about how to better understand neurons, and vice versa. He is the president-elect of the American Society of Cell Biology, which he will lead in 2017.

As chair of neuroscience, De Camilli assumes a role long held by Pasko Rakic, M.D., Ph.D., the inaugural director of the Kavli Institute at Yale, the Dorys McConnell Duberg Professor of Neuroscience, and professor of neurology, who was recruited by Palade to found the department and then led it for 37 years. Rakic is well known for his studies on the cellular and molecular mechanisms of proliferation and migration of neurons in the cerebral cortex—the brain’s outer layer, which plays a key role in cognition. His elucidation of how cortical cells migrate from their birthplace in the brain’s core to their distant, final destinations represent a landmark discovery in neuroscience. Rakic has also contributed one of the most significant tenets of the field—that neurons of the cerebral cortex last for a person’s entire life and are irreplaceable.

Through Rakic’s vision “the Yale School of Medicine became a beacon of neuroscience research worldwide,” Alpern said.