In Memoriam: Deborah L. Levy, PhD

October 22, 2020

Deborah L. Levy, PhD, director of the Psychology Research Laboratory at McLean Hospital and an associate professor of psychology in the Department of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, died on October 15, 2020, from cancer. She was 69.

Dr. Levy was a longtime member of the McLean community, having been recruited to the hospital in 1990. She served as the co-director of Psychology Research from 1991-2004 and the director of the Psychology Research Laboratory since 2004.

Born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Dr. Levy received a bachelor’s in political science and a doctorate in psychology from the University of Chicago. She completed her clinical training at the Cornell-Westchester Division of New York Hospital and received post-doctoral training in clinical psychology at the Menninger Foundation in Topeka, Kansas.

Dr. Deborah Levy
Dr. Deborah Levy

Dr. Levy’s work has had a major impact on our understanding of schizophrenia. In a landmark study based on her dissertation, she examined vestibular responsivity (manifested as an individual’s functional awareness of the position and motion of their body’s parts) in patients with schizophrenia. The study provided a framework for understanding decades of inconsistent results in that she was able to show the essential experimental and procedural flaws in all previous studies. Her review of the vestibular function in schizophrenia stands as the authoritative summary of the field.

Throughout her time at McLean, Dr. Levy was centrally involved in the effort to make sense of schizophrenia’s low rates of occurrence—as compared to bipolar disorder—in first-degree relatives. She helped to identify and characterize four traits that are associated with schizophrenia and are overrepresented in healthy relatives of schizophrenic patients. Her findings suggest that certain features of brain function found at high rates in the families of schizophrenic patients, each of them separately inheritable and in isolation each being consistent with normal mental health, may occasionally coalesce, putting that individual at risk of developing schizophrenia.

A second major focus of her work was exploring novel mechanisms of genetic mutation. Her lab recently led a clinical trial that demonstrated the efficacy of a treatment tailored to a specific mutation. Dr. Levy was awarded the Valiant Researcher Award by the Schizophrenia and Related Disorders Alliance of America for this work.

Her willingness to be available as a resource for patients and families helped so many. She gave freely of her time and expertise as these families searched for help for a loved one.

She was also very committed to the success and growth of everyone who worked with her or for her. Many young people who worked with her as research assistants went on to obtain doctorates and have established careers at major universities and hospitals.

Dr. Levy was the daughter of Walter J. Levy and the sister of Julie Robinowitz and Sharon Lipinsky. A memorial service will be held on Sunday, October 25, at 4:30pm (EDT), followed by a minyan service at 5:30pm (EDT). Both will be held via Zoom.

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