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More Than a Feeling

The Brain and Creativity Institute (BCI) at USC Dornsife receives $1.5 million grant to study the biology of feelings. Their findings could be used to improve treatments for unmanageable pain or depression.

With a $1.5 million grant from the Mathers Foundation, University Professor Antonio Damasio of USC Dornsife is leading a study to understand how the axon insulator myelin affects the ability to process feelings in the brain. Photo by Philip Channing.
With a $1.5 million grant from the Mathers Foundation, University Professor Antonio Damasio of USC Dornsife is leading a study to understand how the axon insulator myelin affects the ability to process feelings in the brain. Photo by Philip Channing.

The Brain and Creativity Institute (BCI) based at USC Dornsife has received a $1.5 million grant from the Mathers Foundation to investigate the neurobiology of feelings at the cellular level. 

One of the fundamental aspects of humanity includes the ability to feel — whether it’s feelings such as thirst or pain, or emotions like joy or sadness. While neuroscientists understand how large regions of the brain work to construct feelings, there is still much to learn about the mechanics of feelings at the level of cells.

“Feelings are extremely important for human beings because they are a sentinel to what’s happening in our bodies and our minds,” said University Professor Antonio Damasio, David Dornsife Chair in Neuroscience and professor of psychology and neurology at USC Dornsife.

“Feelings give us a constant indication of what we ought to gravitate toward, when they’re positive, or an indication that something is wrong, for example, when we experience pain or malaise,” Damasio said. “So it is extremely important to understand what goes on in the nervous system when we are having feelings.”

Damasio and his colleagues are investigating what is taking place in a particular kind of the brain’s axons, the fibers that connect nerve cells. In particular, the researchers will test the hypothesis that the axon insulator myelin alters the ability to process feelings.

By investigating feeling systems at the cellular level, their goal is to understand the underlying processes of feelings, which would ultimately allow scientists to treat related pathologies.

“Given the tremendous importance of feelings in a variety of human diseases, such as pain syndromes, depression or drug addiction, this is a clearly an important area to investigate,” Damasio said.

By gaining insight into the neurobiology of feelings, researchers could potentially develop more effective treatments for these types of disorders, he noted.

The study is being led by Damasio. Neuroscientist Gil Carvalho, BCI postdoctoral researcher, is a lead co-investigator. Their work will be conducted in collaboration with Berislav Zlokovic of the Keck School of Medicine of USC, director of Keck’s Zilkha Neurogenetic Institute.

The G. Harold and Leila Y. Mathers Foundation supports fundamental basic research in the life sciences. Funds are provided for specific projects from top-tier researchers at major universities and independent research institutions within the United States.