Jaak Panksepp was born on June 5, 1943 in Tartu, Estonia. He and his family fled to the United States when the Soviet's began to take over his country. Panksepp earned his B.S. in Psychology in 1965 from the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania. In 1967, he earned his M.S. and in 1969 his Ph.D. both in Physiological Psychology at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, Massachusetts. His graduate thesis focused on electrical stimulation and lesions of the brain and the corresponding behavioral effects. His thesis, "The Neural Basis of Aggression in the Albino Rat," focused on the behavioral consequences of incentive shifts, effects of drug on self-stimulation and aggression, and behavioral analysis on positive and aversive electrical stimulation of the brain. Panksepp completed a postdoc in 1971 at the University of Sussex in Brighton, England, where he studied the role of medial hypothalamic lesions, insulin, and protein synthesis inhibition in feeding behavior. At the Worcester Foundation in Shrewsbury, Massachusetts, he completed another postdoc in 1972 in sleep physiology.
In his lifetime, he accomplished the feat of authoring over 200 scientific articles dealing with the physiological mechanisms that underlie motivated behavior. He also co-edited works such as "Handbook of the Hypothalamus" and "Emotions and Psychopathology.," serves as editor of the series "Advances in Biological Psychiatry," and authored the book "Affective Neuroscience: The foundations of Human and Animal Emotions." He earned the NIMH Research Scientist Development Award for his work in hypothalamic mechanisms of energy balance. Presently, at Bowling Green State University, Panksepp serves as professor emeritus. Bowling Green honored him with the title of "Distinguished Research Professor." The Medical College of Ohio in Toledo bestowed him with the title of adjunct professor. His other awards include Bowling Green State University's's Special Achievement Awards, the Research and Development Award, the Sigma Xi Outstanding Young Scientist Award, NIMH Research Scientist Career Development Award, Meritous Research Award, Professional of the Year Award, and a widely invited presenter at international conferences. Currently, he receives $500,000 in extramural grants. He currently serves as director to the Memorial Foundation for Lost Children, which concerns helping parents and children with neuropsychiatric disorders.
Panksepp hypothesisizes that by studying and understanding emotions at the neural level we can understand emotions and emotional disorders in humans. This field of study became known as affective neuroscience. His research encompasses areas such as organization of emotions at the brain level, anticipatory/expectancy brain mechanisms, social-emotional mechanisms in the brain, play/joy processes in the brain, separation, anxiety, and fear organization in the brain, psycho-behavioral operating systems in the brain, work with animal models of depression, autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and schizophrenia, among numerous other areas.
One of the most interesting contributions made by Panksepp involves his research on play behavior. Panksepp studies the play behavior of rat pups in order to determine what function it serves in the development of the humans, both socially and at the neural level. Play in rat pups increases considerably after the socially depriving the animals for a period of time. This technique of isolating animals and then pairing them together, called "paired-encounter," increases the amount of play behavior. Play behavior in rat pups, classified as "rough and tumble", involves pinning, chasing, and rolling, as well as an element of deception and surprise attack. Panksepp argues that the rat pups do not become aggressive when playing, he insists that they never progress beyond a playful state. Rat pups instigate play by pouncing on each other, followed by chasing and pinning. After a period of playing, the animals stop and engage in grooming. The surprise attack comes in during this grooming phase. Usually, one animal suddenly pounces onto the seemingly unaware playmate and the playing commences again.
Panksepp argues that playing serves a deeper function than simple recreation. He contends play factors in to optimal brain development. He claims that playing behavior releases opiods into the brain. Indeed, the frontal lobe of the brain grows as a response to playing behavior. He found that people with autism, who have an overabundance of opiods, have a decreased need for social play. When given opiates, such as morphine, at low levels, play behavior increases. However, when given opiods in large doses, play behavior is sharply decreased, if not deleted altogether. Panksepp hypothesizes that the opiods released during play act to stimulate further play; eventually, the opiod level rises to a high enough level satisfy the need to play by inducing a feeling of "social comfort." Autistic children, whom detest being touched let alone playing, have abnormally large amounts of opiods in their brain. Perhaps the opiods tell the brain that the child is already satisfied and engage in social comfort, resulting in no further need to engage in social play. This idea forms the basis for his opiod antagonist therapy for autistic children. During rough and tumble play pups learn dominant and subordinate relationships. Playing usually results with one pup pinning the other pup more. The ‘pinning' pup usually becomes dominant later in life. In this early social framework, pups learn social status. It should be noted that pups do not learn to become aggressive through play. On the contrary, play is never aggressive and hurtful. When deprived of play and later given the opportunity to play, deprived pups will engage in play longer than non isolated pups. This "catch up" effect of play shows how critical play behavior really is.
One point that Panksepp makes regards a childhood disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (adhd). Psychostimulants usually treat adhd by increasing the ability of children to focus. Psychostimulants also reduce the urge to engage in rough and tumble play. Panksepp's argues that children, like rat pups, need a few hours of rough and tumble play everyday. Schools increasingly cut the time spent on recess and gym, thereby eliminating the time children engage in physical play. Panksepp argues that disruptive hyperactivness in children may in part stem from this school instated repression of physical play. Since play stimulates and releases chemicals into the brain limiting the use of rough and tumble play, even through the use of psychostimulants, may have adverse effects. The point lies within the fact that researchers do not know the full functions and benefits of play. We may be damaging children with adhd, who simply may have different personality types or need to engage in more play. Panksepp suggests trying more non-obtrusive measures with adhd children first. His suggestions include instituting a period at the beginning of the school day for children to play under the supervision of an adult. He makes the point that after terminating pschostimulants, the children return to their former state of hyperactiveness. This demonstrates that instead of learning to control themselves, these children simply undergo a chemical repression of the expression on a drive to play. In addition to all this, psychostimulants may cause a small decrease in physical growth. Panksepp reduced the frontal lobes in pups, rendering them adhd. Indeed, these pups show increased hyperactivity and playfulness. These rat pups functioned normally later in life if allowed to play abundantly throughout their youth. Perhaps this might suggest that in some cases, ADHD may simply be a child expressing an innate need to play. He points out that allowing ADHD pups to play more does not cause them to be wilder. Rough and Tumble playing is regulated homeostatically in the brain, in much the same way as other appetites.
Society and the medical community should put Panksepp's alternative suggestions under careful consideration and thought. If we can understand the treatment of adhd in terms other than drugs, we may be able to help these children function without reducing play behavior, which is increasingly being understood as a very important neural process. Yaak Panksepp stands out as a leader in animal research. His work with animals has great potential in the application and possible treatment of human pathology.