Affective Neuroscience: The Foundations of Human and Animal Emotions

By Jaak Panksepp | Go to book overview

could have direct health benefits by establishing a certain type of neurohumoral tone in the brain and body, which may promote more vigorous immunological patterns and other beneficial physiological responses. There are instances in the literature of prominent individuals claiming they have experienced remarkable medical benefits in the midst of serious illnesses by sustaining playful attitudes accompanied by abundant laughter. 91

In a sense, play is an index of youthful health. From this vantage, the search for play transmitters can be thought of as a modern version of the search for the fountain of youth. It is the PLAY instinct that, more than any other, uniquely characterizes the joy of youth. Presumably there are brain chemistries, or combinations of chemistries, that can vigorously promote playfulness, but they have not yet been found. One way to discover them would be to identify neurochemical influences that gradually lead to the diminution of play as organisms grow older. The period of childhood has been greatly extended in humans and other great apes compared with other mammals, perhaps via genetic regulatory influences that have promoted playful "neoteny." 92 Indeed, we humans have the longest childhood of any creature on the face of the earth. One influence that might be irreversible is the maturation of the neocortex, which may tend to inhibit RAT ludic activities or at least channel those energies in different, more symbolic, directions.

Another way to understand playfulness might be to consider why playful impulses tend to return during adulthood, when one has offspring of one's own. Generally, parents seem to be more playful than nonparents, and it is reasonable to suppose that this tendency is promoted by neurobiological vectors in addition to the obvious cultural ones. In this context, it is worth reemphasizing that motherhood promotes specific neurochemical changes in the brain. For instance, oxytocin gene expression is increased, which certainly helps promote parenting behavior. 93 Perhaps this same neurochemical change promotes playfulness. For this reason, we evaluated the effects of intraventricular injections of oxytocin on play, but, as already noted, we only observed reductions in play. Vasopressin did seem to increase play slightly, but the results were not definitive. Thus, we presently only have hypotheses regarding which changes during parenthood may promote playfulness. Although we have an abundance of neuropharmacological data suggesting a variety of inhibitory influences on play circuitry, 94 we presently have no way to markedly increase playfulness in a nonplayful mature animal, except by play deprivation.

Over a decade ago, we took some of the more suggestive items from the list of available pharmacological manipulations that seemed to mildly promote play to see if we could generate some combinations that would facilitate play in a vigorous fashion. We were hoping to find a "ludic cocktail." The items selected included the opiate receptor agonist morphine, the serotonin receptor antagonist methysergide, and the dopamine receptor agonist apomorphine, each of which, given at low doses, had exhibited some tendency to increase play. These drugs were given in all possible permutations (a single drug, or two or three drugs concurrently), using various levels of social deprivation that should have allowed one to see both increases and decreases in play. These efforts were eminently unsuccessful. No combination of drugs seemed to clearly potentiate play, and each of the agents alone was, at best, marginally effective. However, we have recently had some modest success with cannabis-like molecules.

It remains possible that age-related decrements in play emerge from a diminished vigor of the underlying play circuits rather than a diminished availability of "play transmitters." If this is the case, it will be unlikely that a "ludic cocktail" can ever be generated, and the search for this "fountain of youth" will be as unproductive as the ones that have gone before. However, many lines of inquiry remain to be pursued.

Indeed, the pursuit of the neurochemical fountain of youth is becoming an active area of inquiry. Already, a series of agents have been found to exert powerful effects on longevity. I will discuss only one here -- the antidepressant monoaniine oxidase inhibitor deprenyl, which can selectively increase dopamine availability in the brain. 95 In fact, deprenyl is highly effective in reducing the symptoms of Parkinson's disease 96 and also provides neuroprotection against the progressive degeneration of dopamine systems that occurs with aging. 97 The vigor of brain dopamine declines markedly in most individuals after the age of 50, and most would become parkinsonian if they lived long enough. 98 Deprenyl, given daily in low doses, reduces this decline and seems to promote youthful vitality: It extends the maximal life span in animals by almost 30%, and male animals that have become sexually sluggish tend to regain their lustiness. 99

It will be interesting to see how such agents influence the ontogeny and dynamics of play throughout juvenile and adult development. One would think that agents that can maintain psychological vitality would also tend to increase playfulness. Indeed, we should also consider the reciprocal idea -- whether playful social companionship may actually extend life span. It is disconcerting how little work is presently being devoted to trying to understand the underlying mechanisms and the adaptive nature of this and other fundamental emotional processes of the mammalian brain.


*3*Suggested Readings

Aldis, O. ( 1975). Play fighting. New York: Academic Press.

Fagen, R. ( 1981). Animal play behavior. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

Groos, K. ( 1898). The play of animals. New York: Appleton.

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