2006: Dolan


University College London (UCL) neuroscientist Raymond Joseph Dolan is the recipient of the 2006 Golden Brain Award from the Berkeley, California-based Minerva Foundation. The Golden Brain Award honors researchers who make seminal findings in vision and brain research. Dolan, the Kinross Professor of Neuropsychiatry at UCL’s Institute of Neurology and head of the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging, was honored for his work on the effects of emotion on memory, learning and decision making and the brain chemistry underlying these processes.

“Dolan’s work has shown us that the emotional context in which we experience an event, learn a task or make a decision effects our memory of the even, how well we learn the task or what kind of choice we will make,” said the late Elwin Marg, director of the Minerva Foundation. “These insights not only reveal how the brain works, but give us a better understanding of the biological basis of our behavior as human beings.”

Dolan’s studies involved using a variety of methods to discover which brain chemicals and what parts of the brain are involved during memorization, learning and decision-making. The key player, he discovered, is the amygdala—the part of the brain responsible for processing the memory of emotional reactions.

• In 2003, he showed that emotion-induced amnesia observed during experiments involving the memorization of emotionally charged words could be reversed with anxiety-reducing medication.
• In 2006, he demonstrated using brain imaging (fMRI) that the amygdala is activated by financial decision-making tasks, suggesting emotions are important in these seemingly unemotional tasks.

These studies and numerous others have advanced understanding of brain function in such disparate—but related—fields of economics, psychology and neuroscience. That’s because scientists used to think of emotion as a hindrance, Dolan said, “Now we know that it has a critical regulatory effect on attention, learning, decision-making and the quality of our consciousness.”