By YVONNE FRENCH
The brain's role in determining emotion and how emotion affects health was the subject of a May 5-6 conference at the Library.
"Discovering Our Selves: The Science of Emotion" featured 15 leading neurologists and drew an audience of some 300 Library and congressional staffers and members of the general public to learn about recent advances in neurobiological and psychological research. The conference was sponsored by the Library of Congress and the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), with support from the Charles A. Dana Foundation.
Tipper Gore, President Clinton's mental health policy adviser and wife of Vice President Al Gore, was the keynote speaker on the second day of the conference. Dr. Billington and Steven E. Hyman, director of NIMH, introduced Mrs. Gore to an audience that included recently elected Rep. Lois Capps (D-Calif.) and several members of the Congressional and Cabinet Spouses Forum on Mental Health Issues.
"Mrs. Gore has been a pioneer in raising our consciousness about mental health, as well as an advocate for the mental health of children and the neurobiological basis for healthy children," said Dr. Billington.
Mrs. Gore, noting that fewer than one in four Americans with symptoms of mental illness seek help, expressed hope that research on emotion would help to remove some of the stigma attached to mental illness.
"Today, we know that the brain, not the heart, rules emotion," she said. "The science of emotion is explaining in human terms the fine line between mental health and mental illness."
Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.) told first-day conference attendees, "Community health is disintegrating and in crisis," adding that many people who are incarcerated would be better off if they received professional counseling.
Conference speakers described how new neuroimaging technologies that allow scientists to explore the functioning brain are yielding vital information about both the normal brain and the brain affected by mental illness. At the same time, the collaboration of scientists from many disciplines is ensuring that new knowledge is distributed among many fields.
Research on emotion historically has been handicapped by a widespread perception that because emotions are individualized, they are also vague, explained Antonio Damasio in his first-day keynote. In fact, behavioral states that are associated with certain emotions are characterized by very specific, consistent and predictable physiological responses. Fear, for example, is marked by freezing in position, increased blood pressure and the release of stress hormones. Mr. Damasio drew a distinction between emotions, such as fear, and the private feelings that normally follow emotion.
Recent studies on fear have yielded fascinating evidence that the amygdala, an almond-shaped node deep within the brain, plays a key role in mediating the fear response. Joseph LeDoux of New York University, author of The Emotional Brain: The Mysterious Underpinnings of Emotional Life, and the conference's closing speaker, described his studies that have elucidated the role of the amygdala in the fear response.
Mr. LeDoux has found that the amygdala responds immediately to a potentially fearful situation but cannot make fine distinctions. A hiker who comes across an unfamiliar object on a forest path provides an example of an amygdala function, he said. "The amygdala can't tell if something is a snake or a stick, but it's better off to treat a stick like a snake than a snake like a stick." Acting on incoming sensory information -- the sights of the unknown object on the path -- the amygdala triggers the "fight or flight" reaction even as the sensory information is being processed by higher cortical regions that are responsible for "understanding" the nature of the threat.
The excitement of research described so vividly by Mr. LeDoux was matched in presentations by other scientists who were part of a panel that discussed "The Science of Memory and Emotion."
Daniel Schacter of Harvard University and author of Searching for Memory: The Brain, the Mind, and the Past discussed the creation of false memories. After being presented with a list of words, subjects are likely to recall that a certain word was included on the list -- even though it had not been -- if it was closely related to other words on the list, he said. Mr. Schacter discussed the difference between implicit, or subconscious, memory, and explicit, or conscious, memory. He has found that the hippocampus, largely thought to be a memory center in the brain, is activated only during explicit memory tasks.
James McGaugh of the University of California-Irvine discussed links between emotional arousal or stress and memory. He also described how several drugs and hormones may either enhance or decrease memory storage. In general, benzodiazepines (a class of antianxiety drugs that includes Valium) reduce memory storage. Stress hormones -- an example is cortisol -- bolster capacity to store memories, an effect that may be related to the increased retention of negative memories.
Eric R. Kandel of Columbia University and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute is considered a founder of the modern study of emotion. He described his research on fear, which has examined brain mechanisms in organisms extending from the simple sea snail to mice and humans. His work has outlined the critical role of genes in forming long-term memories.
Jocelyn H. Bachevalier of the University of Texas Health Science Center has studied the development of learning, memory and emotion in animal models. She has found that while infant monkeys are able to perform discrimination tasks at birth, they are not able to make associations between objects and their mental images of them until they are about 6 to 8 months old, and explicit memory does not develop until they are 2 to 3 years old. Ms. Bachevalier has found that lesions to the temporal lobe early in development produce symptoms similar to those seen in autism. Impairment of the amygdala produces symptoms similar to both autism and schizophrenia.
Peter S. Jensen, director of the Child Research Consortium at NIMH, moderated a second panel, "The Affect of Emotions: Laying the Groundwork in Childhood."
Jerome Kagan of Harvard University has found that the temperament of infants is not necessarily an accurate predictor of their behavior in childhood. Only 13 percent of hyperactive infants remained so after 14 months. Mr. Kagan surmised that environment may play a greater role in the emotional reactivity of children than the "inborn" temperament so evident in infancy.
Richard J. Davidson of the University of Wisconsin-Madison has used electroencephalography (EEG) and various neuroimaging techniques to demonstrate that right frontal activation of the brain is associated with negative emotion and left frontal activation with positive emotion. Like Mr. Kagan, Mr. Davidson has found that individual patterns of frontal activation are not permanent, a finding that underscores the plasticity of the brain.
Mary Carlson of Harvard University described her work with children in Romanian orphanages who were subjected to social deprivation early in life. Such children exhibit many symptoms that are characteristic of autism, she said. Some of the negative effects that stem from severe social deprivation can be reversed, however, by nurturing the children in groups. She emphasized that social deprivation can lead to an imbalance of certain hormones, and human touch plays a vital role in the neural systems that regulate stress.
Felton Earls of Harvard University described a long-term study of children that has documented the relationship between environment and violence. An alarmingly high number of children in Chicago neighborhoods had been exposed to violence: 70 percent of children surveyed reported having witnessed a shooting before they were 15 years old. Mr. Earls has found that the willingness of the community to intervene on behalf of the common good, which he terms "collective efficacy," is inversely related to the rate of violence.
A final panel, "Encountering Daily Life: How Our Emotions Affect Us," was moderated by Mr. Hyman.
Susan Mineka of Northwestern University discussed findings in primates that fear can be learned simply by watching a fear response in others. Laboratory monkeys with no aversion to snakes learned to be fearful of toy snakes by watching videotapes of monkeys exhibiting a fearful response. Ms. Mineka also has found that individuals -- she offered the example of political prisoners -- who anticipate traumatic events are much less likely to develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) than individuals who are not prepared, even though the latter might be exposed to much less trauma.
Dennis Charney of Yale University discussed findings that PTSD causes a permanent decrease in the volume of the hippocampus. He is currently collaborating with Mr. McGaugh to determine if a class of medications called beta-blockers can prevent the harmful effects of PTSD.
J. Raymond DePaulo Jr. of Johns Hopkins University has conducted studies to try to tease out the complex nature of the genetics of manic-depressive illness. In surveys of families in which the illness is present in multiple family members, he has found evidence that a site on chromosome 18 may be involved in producing a susceptibility to the illness. The researcher emphasized, however, that in contrast to "simple" genetic traits that are associated with a single gene, the genetics of any mental disorder are "complex" and likely to involve multiple genes interacting with various environmental influences.
Philip W. Gold of the NIMH Intramural Research Program reviewed clinical aspects of mental illness. Research has heightened awareness, he said, of the extent to which severe mental illnesses such as major depression tend to occur with medical conditions such as osteoporosis and heart disease.
Daniel Weinberger, also of the NIMH Intramural Research Program, discussed neuroimaging studies showing reduced activity in the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex in patients with schizophrenia. He has found that patients with schizophrenia have impaired explicit working and long-term memory, while implicit memory remains largely intact. These findings are consistent with other research relating hippocampal function and explicit memory.
At the closing session of the conference, Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) introduced Mr. LeDoux, praising him for his contributions to the renaissance of research on the neurobiology of fear. Mr. LeDoux summarized some of the remarkable research under way and discussed future opportunities in the science of emotion. Using the tools of molecular biology, he said, researchers will be able to develop medication that will act with a high degree of specificity and effectiveness in specific brain regions, such as the amygdala. Such an accomplishment could be especially beneficial to people suffering from PTSD and depression, he said. Mr. LeDoux also commented on ethical issues central to neurobiological research: for example, the implications of drugs that can erase emotional memories.
As a special luncheon speaker, Stanley I. Greenspan, author most recently of The Growth of the Mind, discussed developmental emotion in children. Studying children at intervals of 1, 4, 9 and 12 months, he has identified discrete stages in which children lean how to respond emotionally. Each child learns differently, he said. Some like less touch and noise and others like more; some children respond preferentially to visual stimuli, while others are more responsive to aural stimuli. Mr. Greenspan expressed concern that a lack of individual attention in day-care and elementary schools may "erode ... the building blocks of a healthy mind, intellectually, emotionally and socially."
The banquet speaker for the conference was Garrick Utley, CNN correspondent and host of the WETA program "Exploring Your Brain," who stressed the role emotions play in the media. Viewer ratings for the live cablecast of Tammy Wynette's funeral, he noted, were four or five times higher than ratings for the regularly scheduled news show.
"Tammy Wynette touched our amygdalas," he said. Mr. Utley predicted that broadcast journalism will move from structural discourse to natural discourse involving mostly the live coverage of events, and viewers increasingly will turn to their computers for factual reportage and news analysis. "Broadcasting is not journalism; it is emotion," he concluded.
The exciting research presented and the interest of the audience attests to the potential in this new field of research. Closing, Mr. Hyman said, "It is meetings like this that help build and coalesce new fields of science."
The two-day program was coordinated by Sherry Levy-Reiner in the Library's Office of Scholarly Programs. Ms. Levy-Reiner heads the LC/NIMH Project on the Decade of the Brain, an interagency initiative to educate Congress and the public about advances in brain research.
Ms. French is a public affairs specialist in the Public Affairs Office. Library of Congress Gazette intern Ralf Grünke and NIMH staff members assisted with this story.