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In Memory: Dr. Jaak Panksepp

Apr 21, 2017

Renowned WSU Researcher Dies

Washington State University lost a remarkable scholar, colleague, and human being when Dr. Jaak Panksepp passed away on April 18, 2017.  Dr. Panksepp is known worldwide as the father of “Affective Neuroscience”, a field of study that examines the neurobiological basis of emotions.  His early work was performed at Bowling Green State University in Bowling Green, Ohio. In 2006 he moved to Washington State University to accept the Bernice and Joseph Baily Chair in Animal Well-Being in the College of Veterinary Medicine.

Jaak was a prolific researcher with over 270 research publications and 12 books, most famous of which are the seminal Affective Neuroscience: The Foundations of Human and Animal Emotions (1998) and his more recent book with co-author Lucy Bivens The Archaeology of the Mind (2012). He is best known in the popular press for his work on rat “laughter”.  In the 1990’s, in collaboration with Dr. Jeffrey Burgdorf, he discovered that when young rats engage rough and tumble play, or when “tickled” by a human hand that mimics rough and tumble play, they emit a high-frequency vocalization that is imperceptible to humans. Because the vocalization or chirping was associated with “tickling”, it became informally known as “laughter”. Follow up work by Panksepp and colleagues, as well as others, have shown these vocalizations associated with several positive emotional states and the brain structures involved are being mapped.

While a focus on rat laughter may appear to be science run amok on an arcane topic, there is a much more serious element to Jaak’s work. Major depression is a serious disease that impacts over 16 million Americans. A major component of autism, which affects an estimated 1 in 68 children, is failure to engage in normal social behaviors, including play. As debilitating as these diseases are, modern medicine has made paltry headway in devising treatment modalities to mitigate their impact. A major reason for the lack of progress is the poor understanding that scientists have of the neurobiology of joy and play, primarily due to the lack of good animal models. Many scientists shy away from these topics because they are fraught with accusations of anthropomorphizing and lack of rigor. But Jaak was not afraid to engage in research on emotions. He made it his life’s work to develop a better biological understanding of emotional states of mind through the simple concept that emotions did not originate with humans, but emotions have a long evolutionary history and are present throughout the animal kingdom. Further, he would argue that accepting this premise is the first step towards developing a deep scientific understanding of emotions and is necessary if we are to alleviate the very real human burden of emotional dysfunction.

His conceptualization of the neurobiology of emotions developed a strong following in the psychiatric community, and he was a frequent speaker at national and international conferences. He was actively engaged in research right up to the time of his death with 11 research or theoretical publications in 2016 alone.  Beyond his impact on the modern conceptualization of emotions, which is considerable, perhaps the most solid achievement of his work has been the development of rapastinel, a drug that alters the function of the N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) receptor, one of the most important neurotransmitter receptors in the brain.  This compound came from a line of research that originally developed between Jaak with Dr. Joseph Moskal of the Falk Center for Molecular Therapeutics at Northwestern University. It is the first antidepressant drug to be developed by identifying a drug target from a neurobiological understanding emotions. In 2014 rapastinel received Fast Track designation from the Food and Drug Administration for use in treatment-resistant depression. Fast Track designation is reserved for drugs that represent a new class of drugs that have promise for serious or life-threatening disease and address an unmet medical need. In 2016 the drug entered into Phase 3 clinical trials in which large scale human studies are performed to determine overall effectiveness. If these trials are successful, rapastinel should become available for general medical use in 2018.

Jaak was also actively involved in departmental affairs, always willing (when not traveling) to engage colleagues and students alike. His knowledge of brain anatomy and neurochemistry was encyclopedic, and his thinking sharp as he would press both locals and visitors on their topics. In addition, Jaak was a friendly and compassionate human being. He was a source of wise council whether the issue was a scientific, departmental, or personal matter. He will be sorely missed.

A memorial in Pullman will be forthcoming.