Erminio Costa, 85, dies; a discoverer of how serotonin works

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Erminio Costa, 85, a neuropharmacologist who made a series of discoveries about chemicals in the brain and how they react to certain drugs, and who wrote more than 1,000 papers on topics within his field, died Nov. 28 at Sibley Memorial Hospital. He had multiple myeloma, a form of bone marrow cancer. He was a Chevy Chase resident for more than 30 years.

In the late 1950s, Dr. Costa was one of the first to discover that serotonin was a neurotransmitter in the brain. Before his research, serotonin was thought to be a molecule found in the gut. Through experimentation, Dr. Costa identified serotonin as a chemical present in the brain that is acted on by antidepressant and antipsychotic medications.

Dr. Costa also helped determine how certain sedatives, benzodiazepines, reacted in the brain. He found the receptors the drugs reacted to, and he helped tailor medications to react only to those receptors, which made the drugs more efficient.

Erminio Costa was born in Cagliari on the coast of Sardinia and was raised by his mother and grandparents in Padua, in northern Italy, where his grandfather was a pharmacist.

During World War II, Dr. Costa served in the Italian army on the Yugoslavian border. In 1957, he received a medical degree from the University of Cagliari, and he was a professor of pharmacology there from 1947 to 1954.

Dr. Costa then moved to the United States and worked at a research laboratory in Galesburg, Ill. In 1960, after his research on serotonin, Dr. Costa joined the National Institutes of Health.

In the late 1960s, Dr. Costa taught pharmacology at Columbia University. In 1968, he went to work at the National Institute of Mental Health, where he was the chief of the laboratory of preclinical pharmacology. He retired in 1985.

In retirement Dr. Costa was the head of a $60 million pharmacological research program at Georgetown University. The program was funded by an Italian drug company, FIDIA Pharmaceuticals, and the agreement dissolved after the company ran into financial trouble in 1993.

Recently, Dr. Costa was the director of the psychiatric institute at the University of Illinois in Chicago, where his work focused on the treatment of schizophrenia. He was also a professor of biochemistry in the department of psychiatry. He retired this year.

His memberships included the National Academy of Sciences and the Accademia Nazionale Dei Lincei in Rome, whose early members included Galileo Galilei.

His marriage to Anna Marazzi ended in divorce. A son from that marriage, Robert Costa, died in 2006.

Survivors include his wife of 36 years, Ingeborg Hanbauer Costa of Chevy Chase; two sons from his first marriage, Max Costa of Hoboken, N.J., and Dr. Michael Costa of Beltsville; and three grandchildren.

-- T. Rees Shapiro

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