The development of drugs to treat mental afflictions was historically a hit-and-miss affair, without much understanding of their actions on brain pathways, and even less of their wider psychological impact. Hannah Steinberg, who has died aged 95, was one of the first researchers to test systematically how psychoactive drugs affect the mind.
Steinberg grasped that the brain produces its own pharmacopoeia of psychoactive substances in response to the challenges of daily living, and argued that the psychological consequences of adding drugs to the mix could not be reliably predicted. “Whatever you administer, you may disturb something else as well,” she said, adding that: “The drug companies on the whole don’t like that concept.”
During the 1960s, she and her colleague Ruth Rushton were among the first to set up rigorous experiments to test the effects of combinations of drugs, such as stimulants and antidepressants, on the behaviour of laboratory rats as well as human subjects, carefully recording responses at different doses.
One example was Drinamyl, a combination of barbiturates and amphetamines, which was then widely prescribed to “tired housewives” as it appeared to relieve depression. Colloquially known as purple hearts, it was also abused as a party drug. Steinberg looked at how it affected the level of activity or capacity to learn in laboratory animals, giving greater insight into what the drugs were actually doing to the brain.
Her research showed that combinations of drugs produced effects that could not be predicted from the actions of either drug alone. She also showed that the effect of a drug could be crucially dependent on the emotional state of the subject. Rats that were stressed by a change in their environment responded differently from those that were not. This led to a sideline in the welfare of laboratory animals, and much of Steinberg’s work informed the increasingly stringent guidelines that govern the use of animals in research.
Her lab at University College London became a leading centre for the psychological study of drug-taking behaviour and addiction, and she trained subsequent generations of successful researchers. She was extremely successful in winning research grants: her early work was funded by the US National Institute for Mental Health; she received support from the Medical Research Council and also funding from a number of foundations and drug companies.
Steinberg never tested a drug on human subjects that she had not taken herself, under controlled conditions. She drew the line at taking LSD, and so never conducted human studies of the drug.
Aware of the literature on endorphins, the body’s natural opiates, in the late 80s she moved on to study the effects of exercise on mental and emotional states – a subject that has recently come back into focus as a reaction against overprescribing of anti-depressants and anti-anxiety drugs. Working with her colleague and partner Elizabeth Sykes, she published studies both on the benefits of exercise for wellbeing and creativity, and on potentially harmful exercise addiction.
Steinberg was born in Vienna, the only daughter of Michael Steinberg, a lawyer, and his wife, Marie (nee Wein). In 1938 they arranged for her evacuation to the UK, one of the first Jewish children to benefit from the Kindertransport. Shortly afterwards her mother took her own life, and her father escaped to Israel. Hannah met him once after the second world war, but did not continue the relationship.
She lived unhappily with relatives in London at first, attending Putney high school, but later found a more congenial home with the family of one of her schoolfriends after she was evacuated to Queen Anne’s school, Caversham, near Reading.
Determined to make her own way, on leaving school she took a business course at the University of Reading and undertook secretarial training. But she found secretarial work frustrating. Enrolling for a degree in French at UCL, she switched to psychology and graduated with a first in 1948. Wanting to learn more science, she joined the pharmacology department at UCL under Frank Winton and did a PhD on the effects of nitrous oxide (laughing gas) on the performance of cognitive tasks.
She found that low doses interfered with the performance of complex tasks, but also, like sleep, improved memory recall. Most of her subjects were students, but they also included other staff, including the eminent geneticist JBS Haldane, who had spent his childhood breathing noxious gases at the behest of his father, the physiologist JS Haldane.
Steinberg became the first psychologist on the staff of the department and was one of the first in the world to hold the title of reader (1962) and professor (1970) in psychopharmacology. She was actively involved in the founding of national and international associations, including the International College of Neuropsychopharmacology (CINP) and the British Association of Psychopharmacology.
After she retired in 1992, she became visiting professor in the psychology department at Middlesex University, where Sykes was based.
Steinberg and Sykes lived together in Torriano Cottages, a surprisingly rural private lane in Kentish Town, north London.
The lane was designated a conservation area in 1985 and soon afterwards Steinberg and Sykes objected to a planning application for a new house in the street. In a vivid example of tenacity, they pursued the case to the high court, where the judge ruled in their favour, saying that planned developments should not only do no harm to the character of the area, but “pay special attention to the desirability of preserving or enhancing” it. This became known as the “Steinberg principle” and was adopted in later legislation.
Steinberg never went on holiday, other than trips to scientific conferences, but took a lively interest in art and music: she was friends with the art historian and fellow Viennese Ernst Gombrich.
Elizabeth died in 2011, after which Steinberg’s health declined and she arranged to be cared for in her home for the rest of her life. She remained close to Elizabeth’s brother, John, and his family, who survive her.
• Hannah Steinberg, scientist, born 16 March 1924; died 11 December 2019