Pasko Rakic was born on May 15, 1933 in Ruma (formerly Kingdom of Yugoslavia). His father, Toma, was Croatian, originally from Pula (Istria, at that time part of Italy), but emigrated to Yugoslavia, where in the town of Novi Sad (province of Vojvodina) he studied to become an accountant and tax official. His mother, Juliana Todoric, of Serbian and Slovakian dissent was born in Dubrovnik (Dalmatia) and moved to Ruma, where they met and got married in 1929.
Due to the nature of his father’s job as Director of Regional Tax Services, the family moved to different towns every few years. Finally, their daughter, Vera, and son, Pasko, completed Gimnasium (High School) in the town of Sremska Mitrovica. Vera eventually graduated in mathematics from Belgrade University, and Pasko obtained his medical degree (MD) from the University of Belgrade School of Medicine, where he embarked on a career as a neurosurgeon.
His research career began in 1962, with a Fulbright Fellowship at Harvard University in Boston, MA, where he met professor Paul Yakovlev, who introduced him to the joy of studying human brain development, which inspired him to abandon neurosurgery. In 1966, he returned to Belgrade and obtained his graduate degree in Developmental Biology and Genetics in 1969. During work on his doctoral thesis, Rakic made his first significant discovery that was internationally recognized.
He then accepted a faculty position at Harvard Medical School, where he worked and taught for 8 years.
In 1978, he was recruited by George Palade to Yale University, where he founded and served as Chair of the Department of Neurobiology and the director of the Kavli Institute for Neuroscience until 2015, when he returned to work full-time on his research projects, funded by US Public Health Services and various private foundations.
He was president of the Society for Neuroscience from 1995 to 1996.
Pasko Rakic is well known for his studies of the development and evolution of the brain. More specifically, he has discovered and formulated basic 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 and human exceptional mental capacities.
According to Nature Medicine, his first experiments at Harvard required an especially large research grant, that enabled exposure of non-human primate rhesus monkeys to so much radioactive thymidine that manufacturers had to retool their entire production system to provide it. Rakic injected the monkeys' fetuses with radioactive thymidine at a particular time after conception. Only replicating cells took up the radioactive label, which enabled Rakic to trace the lineages of brain cells as they were created. He and his team then sliced the brain of each monkey into 7,000 sections, which were stored in Rakic’s collection for the benefit of future researchers. Because he used a radiolabel that decays slowly, the slides should be useful for years, and have so far led to more than 24 papers. This material has also provided evidence that contributed one of the significant tenets of Neuroscience, that neurons of the cerebral cortex last for the entire lifespan and are irreplaceable.
Rakic discovered the early commitment of newborn neurons to their laminar, radial and areal fates and proposed differential cell adhesion as the basic mechanism for their surface-mediating migration along transient radial glial scaffolding. These studies led him to postulate the “radial unit hypothesis” and “protomap” hypotheses of cortical development and evolution that provide the framework for understanding basic principles of normal and pathological development of the human brain.
Rakic also provided direct cellular evidence for the competitive interactions among binocular visual connections before birth, and showed that axons, synapses and neurotransmitter receptors are overproduced before declining to the adult levels by a process of competitive selective elimination.
According to Google Scholar, Rakic is among most highly cited neuroscientists.Grass Foundation Award, 1985
Karl Spencer Lashley Award, American Philosophical Society, 1986
Francois I Medal, College de France, 1986
Kreig Cortical Discoverer Award, 1989
Marta Philipson Award, Stockholm 2000
Pasarow Foundation Award, 2001
Fyssen International Science Prize, 1992
F.O. Schmitt Medal, 1992
Weinstein-Goldenson Award (United Cerebral Palsy Foundation) 1994;
Henry Gray Award, AAA, 1996
Bristol-Myers Squibb Award, 2002
Gerard Prize, SFN, 2002
Inaugural Kavli Neuroscience Prize shared with T. Jessell & S. Grillner (2008)
Krieg Lifetime Achievement Award shared with Paul Allen, 2010
Max Cowan Award, 2013
Sandy Palay Award, 2014
Child Mind Institute Award, NYC, 2014
Becker Award “Gesellschaft fuer Neuropaediatrie” 2014
National Academy of Sciences (USA)
American Academy of Arts and Sciences (USA)
National Academy of Medicine (USA)
Croatian Academy of Sciences and Arts (HAZU)
Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts (SANU)
Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters (NOR)
Academia Europea (UK)
Royal Society London (UK)
He is married to Sandra Biller Rakic, MFT, who currently practices in New Haven, CT. Previously, he was married to Patricia Goldman-Rakic, also a neuroscientist, who died on July 31, 2003.