Dr. Joan Morrell Named Chancellor's Distinguished Research Scholar At Rutgers University, Newark

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Dr. Joan Morrell, a behavioral neuroscientist whose research seeks to unravel the motivational systems of the brain, is the 2011-2012 Chancellor’s Distinguished Research Scholar at Rutgers University, Newark. Newark Chancellor Steven J. Diner will honor her Nov. 3 at a public program where Morrell will discuss her research, which 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. Her talk is titled, Common Roots: Laboratory Rats Help Us Understand the Neurobiology of Human Motivation and Emotions.

“I am very pleased to accept this honor in recognition of the community of neuroscientists on the Newark Campus of Rutgers and particularly my closest colleagues in the Center for Molecular and Behavioral Neuroscience (CMBN),” stated Morrell, a researcher at CMBN since 1986.
The Chancellor’s Distinguished Research Award honors professors who have done exceptional scholarly work on a subject of fundamental intellectual importance, according to Diner. The honors for Morrell will be at 4 p.m. on Nov. 3 in the Paul Robeson Campus Center, Multipurpose Room, 350 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. There is no charge to attend.

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 caregiving, 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 caregiving 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 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.

(For a layman’s guide to Morrell’s research, read her commencement speech at Her research page is:

Morrell, a New York City resident, received her bachelor of science degree from Carnegie-Mellon University and her doctoral degree in anatomy from the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry. She then spent 12 years at Rockefeller University, rising from postdoctoral fellow to associate professor. She joined Rutgers in Newark in 1986.

Morrell has published 117 peer-reviewed journal articles, reviews and book chapters. She has served as a member of the National Institutes of Health Peer Review system and as editor of the Behavioral Neuroscience Section for Neuroscience, and also on a number of other journal editorial boards.