Jaak Panksepp

PULLMAN, Wash — Washington State University lost a remarkable scholar and colleague on April 18, when Dr. Jaak Panksepp passed away due to cancer.

Dr. Jaak Panksepp
Photo by Henry Moore Jr, CVM/BCU, Washington State University.

A renowned neuroscientist and affective behaviorist, Panksepp was known worldwide as the father of “Affective Neuroscience.”

Affective neuroscience examines the neurobiological basis of emotions. He did his early work at Bowling Green State University in Bowling Green, Ohio.

In 2006, he moved to WSU to accept the Bernice and Joseph Baily Chair in Animal Well-Being in the College of Veterinary Medicine.

Panksepp was a prolific researcher with more than 270 research publications and 12 books. His 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 perhaps best known in the popular media for his work on rat “laughter.”

In the 1990’s, in collaboration with Dr. Jeffrey Burgdorf, he discovered that when young rats engage in 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 without amplification.

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 now 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 Panksepp’s work related to major depression.

Major depression is a serious disease that impacts more than 16 million Americans. A major component of Autism Spectrum Disorders, which affects an estimated 1 in 68 children, is often a failure to engage in normal social behaviors, including play. As debilitating as these diseases are, modern medicine has made little headway in devising treatment modalities to mitigate their impact.

A major reason for the lack of progress with these conditions is scientists’ poor understanding 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 a seeming lack of academic rigor.

Panksepp 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, 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 was developed from a line of research that originally began between Panksepp with Dr. Joseph Moskal of the Falk Center for Molecular Therapeutics at Northwestern University. Rapastinel is the first antidepressant drug to be developed by identifying a drug target from a neurobiological understanding of emotions.

In 2014, rapastinel received Fast Track designation from the FDA 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.

Panksepp was also actively involved in departmental affairs in the WSU College of Veterinary Medicine.  When not traveling, he was always willing 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, Panksepp 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 is sorely missed.