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Joan Morrell Honored As Chancellor’s Distinguished Research Scholar

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Dr. Joan Morrell, a behavioral neuroscientist whose research seeks to unravel the motivational systems of the brain, was honored Nov. 3 as the 2011-2012 Chancellor’s Distinguished Research Scholar. Morrell was publicly recognized by Newark Chancellor Steven J. Diner at a program in which she also gave a presentation about her research. “Common Roots: Laboratory Rats Help Us Understand the Neurobiology of Human Motivation and Emotions" explained her work, 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.

The Chancellor’s Distinguished Research Award honors professors who have done exceptional scholarly work on a subject of fundamental intellectual importance.

“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.

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,” 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. Morrell compares this area of the brain to the “Planning and Decision Central” department in a corporation, since it conducts the highest level “thinking” in humans, making plans and complex decisions and considering their consequences. 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 a 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 http://www.newark.rutgers.edu/commencement/index.php?sId=morrellspeech.