From the biological sciences to the psychology department, UW-Madison has always been on science’s cutting edge, but UW’s groundbreaking work in the study of emotions, called affective neuroscience, has helped create an entire new field of research.
Less than a decade ago it was impossible to study emotion. It was a relatively obscure science, unlike the hands-on work of the biological sciences, and scientists lacked the proper tools.
But now, with UW’s leading scientists making the national press several times a year, nearly two dozen scientists have joined to make affective neuroscience an integral part of all areas of the behavioral sciences.
With the addition of the W.M. Keck Laboratory, the new $10 million brain-imaging facility that opened in April, scientists have access to one of the most sophisticated brain-imaging laboratories in the world. The Keck Laboratory is giving researchers new insights by helping compare how the brain functions normally to how it functions when suffering from affective disorders.
Noninvasive procedures, such as Positron Emission Tomography (PET) and functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI), are used exclusively for research in the new facility; they allow scientists to actually see how the brain responds to emotions.
The availability of this imaging technology enables scientists to look at the brain in ways that were unimaginable 10 years ago, making possible major new discoveries about human emotions.
Richard Davidson, director of the W.M. Keck Laboratory, said UW has been an integral part of this new and explosive area of science on the national stage.
“Wisconsin is unparalleled in its leadership, particularly in the application of these methods in the study of emotion,” Davidson said.
Davidson has been a major force in creating the new field of affective neuroscience. He is internationally renowned for his research in identifying specific brain-circuits and the structures involved in negative and positive emotions.
Some of Davidson’s recent research includes trying to identify brain vulnerabilities in children and finding successful treatment for mood disorders such as depression.
“We are able to predict, based on these kinds of brain-scanning techniques, whether an individual with depression will benefit from a certain kind of treatment before the treatment actually gets administered,” Davidson said.
Understanding the biological basis of emotion has widespread implications ranging from proper diagnosis and treatment of psychological disorders to understanding the relationship between emotions and health.
Furthermore, UW is breaking down barriers of science by investigating what effect meditation has on the brain.
After a recent visit of Tensin Gystso, the fourteenth Dalai Lama of Tibet, for a conference entitled “Transformation of Mind, Brain, and Emotion,” Wisconsin scientists have been developing a network of researchers who are interested in studying the neurological changes produced by meditation.
“[The Dalai Lama] is fascinated by modern science, and particularly by modern science that is concerned with the brain or mind,” Davidson said.