Esther May Sternberg

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Esther May Sternberg


Canadian-American Physician, Neuroendocrinologist, and Administrator

Esther M. Sternberg has made many contributions to the study of rheumatology, neuroendocrinology, stress and neurological disorders, and the relationship between emotions and disease. Her research was fundamental to elucidating the etiology of a puzzling 1989 epidemic of eosinophilia-myalgia syndrome. Sternberg's work on the new field of research known as "mind-body interactions" has been instrumental in explaining how the immune system and the nervous system communicate with each other.

Sternberg was born in Montreal in 1951. In 1991 she became a citizen of the United States. Her choice of a career was greatly influenced by her family background. Joseph Sternberg, her father, was a physician-scientist and a pioneer in the fields of radiation biology and nuclear medicine.

In 1972 Sternberg received a B.Sc., with Great Distinction, from McGill University, located in Montreal. Two years later, she was awarded an M.D. from McGill. During her post-graduate medical training at the Royal Victoria Hospital, she selected rheumatology as her area of clinical and research specialization. Between 1981 and 1986, she was a research associate in the Division of Allergy and Clinical Immunology at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, Missouri. In 1987 she accepted a research position in clinical neurosciences at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) in Bethesda, Maryland. This job has led to a series of increasingly prestigious positions at the NIMH. Her current position there is Chief of the Section on Neuroendocrine Immunology and Behavior. She is also a research full professor at the American University in Washington, D.C.

Sternberg has published over 60 articles and books. These writings explore many medical problems, including rheumatoid arthritis, scleroderma, fibromyalgia, multiple sclerosis, the effect of serotonin on the immune response, the design of drugs to inhibit HIV receptor binding, the relationship between L-tryptophan and human eosinophilia-myalgia syndrome, neuroendocrinology and the immune response, and the stress response and regulation of inflammatory disease. Other works by Sternberg consider hyperimmune fatigue syndrome, tamoxifen, lymphokines, the relationship between exercise and the immune system, neuroendocrine aspects of autoimmunity, neuroimmune stress interactions, neuroendocrine factors in susceptibility to inflammatory disease, emotions and disease, and other aspects of mind-body interactions. Sternberg has received many awards and honors for her research on rheumatology, EMS, and the relationship between emotions and disease. Her expertise has been sought in areas as diverse as scleroderma, asthma, mind-body interactions, influenza and pneumoccocal vaccines, stress in neurological disorders, the health of deployed U.S. military forces, and military nutrition research. In 1989 a previously unknown disorder that came to be called eosinophilia-myalgia syndrome (EMS) appeared in an epidemic pattern in the United States. About 1,500 cases and 40 deaths were reported. Case studies, epidemiological data, and laboratory research on animals linked the syndrome to the amino acid L-tryptophan, sold by a particular manufacturer as a dietary supplement. Sternberg's research was fundamental in elucidating the etiology (origin) of EMS and in drawing attention to the pressure that the manufacturer of the suspected L-tryptophan was bringing against researchers trying to investigate the disorder.

For much of the twentieth century, medical science and even medical practice had become, according to many critics, increasingly specialized and mechanistic. The field of neuroimmune interactions, in contract, is an intensely interdisciplinary field that encompasses immunology, neuro-biology, neuroendocrinology, and the behavioral sciences. Beliefs about the relationship between emotions and disease that go back to the writings of Hippocrates are now being investigated in terms of molecules, cells, and nerve signals. Biomedical scientists and physicians involved in this challenging area have been able to integrate research results from molecular biology with clinical observations of behaviors, emotions, and disease. As a leader in the study of mind-body interactions, Sternberg has called for research that is precise, focused, and integrative. For example, vague references to "stress" are giving way to precise definitions and measurements of both external stressors and internal responses (e.g., neural, neuroendocrine, and immune factors). The task of future research, according to Sternberg, will be to provide rigorous evidence that neuroimmune interactions play a role in susceptibility and resistance to inflammatory and infectious diseases and to find ways to apply these new scientific insights to human health and healing.