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Unlocking the keys to motivation and behavior

Dr. Joan Morrell is a woman with a mission:  unraveling the motivational systems of the brain.  

The behavioral neuroscientist’s research focuses on the brain basis of motivation with an emphasis on examining the systems that impact maternal motivation and motivation to seek drugs of abuse. 

Why study the biological roots of motivation? By unlocking the keys to motivation, it might become possible to mold it to produce more beneficial behaviors.  “Healthy working motivational forces… are crucial as we advance our society for the benefit of all,” notes Morrell.  Much of her research focuses on motivations for parental care-giving, an area where she has learned that the “biological roots of parental motivation lead to work and sacrifice for sake of the young, concepts familiar and beneficial to us all.”  Morrell was the first to uncover that subregions of the brain's prefrontal cortex are involved in both the care-giving of offspring and the motivation to parent.  The prefrontal cortex conducts the highest level “thinking” in humans, making plans and complex decisions and considering their consequences.  Morrell compares this area of the brain to the “Planning and Decision Central” department in a corporation. These same systems turn to “the dark side of motivated choice” when they function in the motivation to seek drugs of abuse. Understanding the choice in motivated behavior is a key aspect of Morrell’s work.

Morrell, a researcher at the Center for Molecular and Behavioral Neuroscience on the Newark campus since 1986, has recently ventured into a new area: examining the “hardwiring” of the motivation to exercise.  Given the wide-ranging positive effects of exercise on physical and mental health, and “the almost universal human motivational problem, our lack of motivation to exercise,” Morrell believes this is crucial area to extend her exploration of the brain regions mediating motivation.

“Our research suggests that there may be things we can do to strengthen parental behavior, and also perhaps the desire to exercise, in a manner similar to the way people can be trained if they have gambling addictions to make prudent choices,” says Morrell.

In recognition of her contributions to research, Morrell was named the 2011-2012 Chancellor’s Distinguished Research Scholar by Steven J. Diner.

Morrell, a New York City resident, holds degrees from Carnegie-Mellon University and the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry. She spent 12 years at Rockefeller University, rising from postdoctoral fellow to associate professor, before joining Rutgers.


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