Saturday, June 30, 2012

Rats Laugh When Tickled, Animal Emotions Provide Clues to Autism, Other Disorders Says WSU Researcher

Animals might not analyze their emotions the way humans do, but they do experience them, according to Jaak Panksepp, a professor and researcher at Washington State University.

Credit: WSU

A relatively new addition to WSU's Department of Veterinary and Comparative Anatomy, Pharmacology and Physiology, Panksepp believes "people don't have a monopoly on emotion; rather, despair, joy and love are ancient, elemental responses that have helped all sorts of creatures survive and thrive in the natural world."

Since arriving at WSU, he has ushered in a new area of study called "affective neuroscience." It involves the study of the basic processes that create and control moods, feelings and attitudes in both people and animals.

"This doesn't imply that animals think about their feelings like people do," said Panksepp, "but they do experience them in similar ways."

Born in Estonia, he brings with him an extensive portfolio of both domestic and international neuroscience credentials. He also is already something of a celebrity, having been featured on MSNBC and in Psychology Today.

Panksepp's research goal is to offer a scientific strategy for understanding the basic emotional feelings in the mammalian brain, including humans, by accurately studying the instinctual emotional behaviors of animals. He is developing the idea that emotional feelings are closely linked to the instinctual actions animals exhibit.

"All animals have instinctual behaviors, so therefore we target the instinctual circuits," he said. "We can stimulate a circuit - say by gently tickling a rat - to essentially ask the animal if he likes the circuit on or off (rats like it on). They always choose one way or the other. Mother Nature built it in such a way that a feeling component is part of the instinctual system.

Practically speaking, this understanding of animal behavior and the neurochemistry behind emotion may help lead to breakthrough treatments for an array of psychological disorders such as schizophrenia, depression, autism, sleep problems and more, Panksepp said.

In the late 1970s and early 80s, he and his colleagues developed the first animal model for autism. Later, they tested autistic children in Salzburg using an opiate blocking drug called naltrexone. Given very low doses of naltrexone, which mildly shift chemical balances in the body and brain, Panksepp and his team found that some children became more cheerful and responsive.

"We are working with the body's own chemistry in these studies," he said, "so there are few side effects. In general, the drug increases social desire and we speculate that some autistic children have a higher than normal opiate level in their brain, causing them to become socially aloof. In effect, they have become addicted to themselves," he said.

Panksepp is also toying with the idea that low dose naltrexone might be effective in mood regulation, which may be something he plans to investigate in the future. By blocking the opioid system only at night, they effectively hope to encourage the brain's natural opioid system to become more active during the day.

With millions of questions yet to answer in this new area of study, Panksepp plans to continue his investigations at WSU and to collaborate with researchers there and many other universities. He is most interested in the organization of the "social brain" and social emotions - joy and sadness - especially by focusing on the emotional sounds of animals.

In his recent work, Panksepp has found that young rats make chirping sounds outside the range of human hearing, especially while playing. These high-pitched sounds appear to have a deep ancestral relationship to infantile human laughter - the essence of social joy, he said. The brain systems that generate these play sounds feel good, since the animals like to have those brain areas "tickled". The work provides a greater understanding of positive emotions that may eventually help in the development of better antidepressants.

But finding a species in which he could study both systems effectively at the same age has proved to be difficult. Panksepp's group recently started to focus their research on the degu - a small, guinea pig-like rodent native to Chile. The playful degus have a wide repertoire of vocalizations which are the basis for many of Panksepp's current studies at WSU.

Panksepp is a world leader in the new science of how emotions are controlled by the brain. Beside his current work with positive social emotions, he has also helped show how specific brain mechanisms that control desire, anger and separation distress are organized in the brain, and that many animals even have subtler emotions such as the "quest for nurturance and the desire to offer care" - just as anyone who has ever owned and loved a dog might suspect.

Jaak Panksepp, WSU professor and researcher, seeks to offer a scientific strategy for understanding the basic emotional feelings in the mammalian brain, including humans, by accurately studying the instinctual emotional behaviors of animals. He is developing the idea that emotional feelings are closely linked to the instinctual actions animals exhibit.

Contacts and sources: 
By Robert Strenge
Washington State University

2 comments:

  1. Great blog!! It involves the study of the basic processes that create and control moods, feelings and attitudes in both people and animals.
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  2. I find it amusing that we seek to communicate with intelligent life on other planets when we have not yet succeeded with communicating with intelligent life on planet Earth.

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