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In memoriam: Dr. Arnold Scheibel helped shape UCLA's neuroscience community

Master teacher brought together scientists from different fields to study the human brain

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Arnold Scheibel
UCLA

Arnold "Arne" Scheibel

Arnold “Arne” Scheibel, a renowned neuroanatomist whose passion for teaching and for understanding the workings of the human brain inspired generations of students and helped shape the neuroscience community at UCLA, died Monday, April 3, in Oakland, California. He was 94.

Scheibel, an emeritus distinguished professor of neurobiology and psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences, taught medical students, graduate students and undergraduates about the structure of the brain as a member of UCLA's Department of Neurobiology. “He was passionate about the nervous system, and he spent his life uncovering its mysteries and explaining them to thousands of students,” said Paul Micevych, professor and department chair of neurobiology. “If there was something Arne loved more than the structure and the function of the brain, it was teaching. He was a master at mesmerizing students both with the facts about the structure of the brain, but [also] with his ability to make it live in the students’ imagination.” 

 Scheibel led the UCLA Brain Research Institute (BRI) from 1987 to 1995 as acting director and later as its director. Under his leadership, working groups of scientists from across the campus were organized, a move that underscored a culture of multidisciplinary collaboration that helped the institute become well-known for its multidisciplinary and team-based neuroscience.

These affinity groups, which met regularly to discuss cross-cutting topics, led to the development of the Integrative Centers of Neuroscience Excellence at UCLA and helped bring in funding for several training programs and grants, including one that created the Alzheimer’s Disease Center.

"Under Dr. Scheibel’s leadership, the BRI flourished and became more integrated into the UCLA community,” said Christopher Evans, BRI director. “His contributions included advancing the BRI’s mission to pursue collaborative breakthroughs in understanding the brain and to communicate the excitement of neuroscience to UCLA students and children at local schools.”

Scheibel’s impact was felt throughout UCLA.

“When Arne wasn’t directing the institute, he was sharing his wisdom with others,” noted Dr. Kelsey Martin, dean of the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, in announcing Scheibel’s passing to the UCLA Health campus. “He continued to consult with campus faculty on the BRI missions of research, teaching and outreach, and he generously bequeathed a BRI Term Chair to enrich the future research mission of the institute, from which new generations will benefit.”

In all, Scheibel dedicated 58 years of service to the university. He earned election to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences as well as UCLA’s highest teaching honor, the Distinguished Teaching Award, among other distinctions given him.

Former students who considered him a role model recalled that he never used PowerPoint slides, but preferred drawing diagrams in chalk, while also clearly communicating his love of neuroscience. “He was the greatest and most inspirational teacher I have ever had,” said Stephen Wilson, a neuroscientist and faculty member at Vanderbilt University. “He was passionate about the brain — understanding its structure and function — and he instilled in his students a deep and abiding respect for neuroanatomy. Even the most obscure brainstem nucleus would quickly take on a life of its own in Dr. Scheibel’s hands.”

Born in New York City in 1923, Scheibel did his undergraduate work at Columbia College and received his M.D. from Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons in 1946. Initially interested in cardiology, he decided to study psychiatry instead when he became intrigued by the role emotions played in cardiac disease. After a year of psychiatric residency training at Washington University in St. Louis, he entered the Army as a medical officer and received further training while on active duty at Brooke General Hospital in San Antonio, Texas.

To learn about the brain structure and function, Scheibel joined the neurophysiology laboratory of Warren McCulloch at Illinois Neuropsychiatric Institute. After working briefly as a faculty member at the University of Tennessee and then spending 15 months at the universities of Pisa and Oslo on a Guggenheim Fellowship, Scheibel joined the faculty in the UCLA departments of anatomy and psychiatry in 1955.

His research was focused around psychiatry and the neural foundations of behavior. His laboratory studied the reticular core of the brain stem and thalamus, the organization of neural modules, and the structural correlation between aging and psychosis, among other topics.

Scheibel’s contribution to science extended far beyond campus boundaries. At the institute, he began a popular science outreach program, Project Brainstorm, which continues today. Each year, UCLA undergraduates, graduate students and faculty organize hands-on workshops and interactive demonstrations to introduce neuroscience in a fun way to thousands of LAUSD students, who are shown a human brain for the first time.

In 2016, as a memorial tribute to his parents, Scheibel established the Ethel Scheibel Endowed Chair in Neuroscience in the Department of Neurobiology at the David Geffen School of Medicine and the William Scheibel Endowed Chair in Neuroscience at the Brain Research Institute.

“I hope that these two endowed chairs will help continue the tradition of bringing gifted and creative investigators to the neuroscience research and training programs at UCLA,” Scheibel said. “After all, the brain is the ultimate source of our humanity, the instrument of our culture and the key to our continued existence as a biological race.”  

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