Joseph E. LeDoux
Joseph E. LeDoux (born December 7, 1949) is an American neuroscientist whose research is primarily focused on the biological underpinnings of emotion and memory, especially brain mechanisms related to fear and anxiety. LeDoux is the Henry and Lucy Moses Professor of Science at New York University, and director of the Emotional Brain Institute, a collaboration between NYU and New York State with research sites at NYU and the Nathan Kline Institute for Psychiatric Research in Orangeburg, New York. He is also the lead singer and songwriter in the band The Amygdaloids.
Research and theories
As explained in his 1996 book, The Emotional Brain, LeDoux developed an interest in the topic of emotion through his doctoral work with Michael Gazzaniga on split-brain patients in the mid-1970s. Because techniques for studying the human brain were limited at the time, he turned to studies of rodents where the brain could be studied in detail. He chose to focus on a simple behavioral model, Pavlovian fear conditioning. This procedure allowed him to follow the flow of information about a stimulus through the brain as it comes to control behavioral responses by way of sensory pathways to the amygdala, and gave rise to the notion of two sensory roads to the amygdala, with the “low road” being a quick and dirty subcortical pathway for rapid activity behavioral responses to threats and the “high road” providing slower but highly processed cortical information. His work has shed light on how the brain detects and responds to threats, and how memories about such experiences are formed and stored through cellular, synaptic and molecular changes in the amygdala. A long-standing collaboration with NYU colleague Elizabeth Phelps has shown the validity of the rodent work for understanding threat processing in the human brain. LeDoux’s work on amygdala processing of threats has helped understand exaggerated responses to threats in anxiety disorders in humans. For example, studies with Maria Morgan in the 1990s implicated the medial prefrontal cortex in the extinction of responses to threats and paved the way for understanding how exposure therapy reduces threat reactions in people with anxiety by way of interactions between the medial prefrontal cortex and the amygdala. Work conducted with Karim Nader and Glenn Schafe triggered a wave of interest in the topic of memory reconsolidation, Nader K, Schafe GE, LeDoux JE (2000) Fear memories require protein synthesis in the amygdala for reconsolidation after retrieval. Nature 406:722-726 a process by which memories become labile and subject to change after being retrieved. This led to the idea that that trauma-related cues might weakened in humans by blocking reconsolidation. Studies with Marie Mofils, Daniela Schiller and Phelps showed that extinction conducted shortly after triggering reconsolidation is considerably more effective in reducing the threat value of stimuli than conventional extinction, a finding that has proven useful in reducing drug relapse in humans.
Recently, LeDoux has begun to emphasize the value, when discussing brain functions in animals, of using terms that are not derived from human subjective experience. The common practice of calling brain circuits that detect and respond to threats “fear circuits” implies that these circuits are responsible for feelings of fear. LeDoux has argued that so-called Pavlovian fear conditioning should be renamed Pavlovian threat conditioning to avoid the implication that “fear” is being acquired in rats or humans. Key to his theoretical change is the notion of survival functions mediated by survival circuits, the purpose of which is to keep organisms alive rather than to make emotions. For example, defensive survival circuits exist to detect and respond to threats. While all organisms can do this, only organisms that can be conscious of their own brain’s activities can feel fear. Fear is a conscious experience and occurs the same way as any other kind of conscious experience: via cortical circuits that allow attention to certain forms of brain activity. He argues the only differences between an emotional and non-emotion state of consciousness are the underlying neural ingredients that contribute to the state. These ideas and their implications for understanding the neural foundations of pathological fear and anxiety are explained in his 2015 book, Anxious.
Awards and professional recognition
LeDoux has received a number of awards, including the Karl Spencer Lashley Award from the American Philosophical Society, the Fyssen International Prize in Cognitive Science, Jean Louis Signoret Prize of the IPSEN Foundation, the Santiago Grisolia Prize, the American Psychological Association Distinguished Scientific Contributions Award, and the American Psychological Association Donald O. Hebb Award. He is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the New York Academy of Sciences, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, a William James Fellow of the Association for Psychological Science, and a member of the National Academy of Sciences.
Books and other public outreach
In addition to numerous publications in scholarly journals, LeDoux has written The Integrated Mind (with Michael Gazzaniga, Plenum, 1978), The Emotional Brain (Simon and Schuster, 1998), Synaptic Self: How Our Brains Become Who We Are (Viking, 2002), and Anxious: Using the Brain to Understand and Treat Fear and Anxiety (Viking, 2015). He has also edited several volumes, including Mind and Brain: Dialogues in Cognitive Neuroscience (with William Hirst, Cambridge University Press, 1986), and The Self: From Soul to Brain (with Jacek Debiec and Henry Moss, Annals of the New York Academy of Science, 2003), and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: Basic Science and Clinical Practice (with Peter Shiromani and Terrence Keane, Humana Press, 2009). He has also contributed to the New York Times Opinionator column on Anxiety and to the Huffington Post, and has conducted numerous television, radio, online, and print interviews. LeDoux has also collaborated with filmmaker Alexis Gambis on a project called “My Mind’s Eye” on the Scientific American website in which interviews with esteemed scientists and philosophers (including Eric Kandel, Michael Gazzaniga, Ned Block) are framed within the context of his music (see below).
Early life and education
Joseph LeDoux was born on December 7, 1949, in the Cajun Prairie town of Eunice, Louisiana, to Joseph E. “Boo” LeDoux, a traveling rodeo performer (bull rider) and butcher, and Priscilla Buller LeDoux. He attended St. Edmund’s Elementary School and Eunice High School, graduating in 1967. LeDoux attended Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge where he majored in Business Administration and minored in Psychology. In 1972 he began work on a Masters of Science in Marketing from LSU. During this time, his interest in psychology grew and he volunteered in the laboratory of Robert Thompson, who introduced him to brain research.
Academic and professional history
In the fall of 1974 LeDoux began a PhD program at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, and completed his degree in 1977. After completing his PhD in 1978, LeDoux joined the Department of Neurology at Cornell Medical School as a postdoctoral fellow and remained there through the rank of associate professor until 1989. During most of his time at Cornell, he worked in the Neurobiology Laboratory where received technical training in state-of-the-art neurosicence techniques and began the research program on the brain mechanism of emotional memory that he has pursued ever since. In 1989 he joined the newly formed Center for Neural Science at NYU as an associate professor. In 1991 he was promoted to full professor, and in 1996 he became the Henry and Lucy Moses Professor of Science. In 2005, he was named university professor, the highest honor for a faculty member at NYU.
In 1971 LeDoux married LSU classmate Diana Steen. They divorced amicably in 1978. Since 1982 he has been married to art critic Nancy Princenthal. Currently they reside in the Williamsburg area of Brooklyn. They have two children, Jacob S. LeDoux (died 2005) and Milo E. LeDoux. Milo is a graduate of the University of Oxford, where he studied classics, and is now pursuing a career in law.
Cajun/zydeco, country, R and B and rock ‘n’ roll, and their fusion of all these into “swamp pop,” were ever present influences in Southern Louisiana childhood. In high school, he was a disc jockey at the local radio station, KEUN, and the rhythm guitarist of two bands: the Deadbeats and the Countdowns. Although he remained an avid music fan in later life, he did not actively play guitar for many years. In 2004, LeDoux and NYU Biology Professor Tyler Volk began performing as a cover band for small parties around NYU, and in 2006 they formed The Amygdaloids. The original band also included Daniela Schiller, then an NYU postdoctoral fellow, and graduate student Nina Curley. The bands lyrics, mostly written by LeDoux, are based on neuroscientific, psychological, and philosophical themes, and offer scholarly insights into the role of mind and brain in daily life. Their inaugural CD, Heavy Mental, was released in 2007 and included such tunes as “Mind-Body Problem,” “An Emotional Brain,” and “Memory Pill.” On their second CD, Theory of My Mind (Knock Out Noise label), LeDoux and Grammy winner Rosanne Cash sing “Crime of Passion” and “Mind over Matter,” both written by LeDoux. In 2012, the band released All in Our Minds, an EP in which all songs had “mind” in their title. Anxious, a companion to LeDoux’s book with the same title, was released in 2015 and explores some of the same scientific themes as the book, but through song. The band’s unique focus on original songs about mind and brain has landed them considerable press. They play regularly in New York City, and have also performed in Washington DC, San Antonio TX, Indianapolis IN, and Lafayette LA, as well as in Montreal, Canada. LeDoux and Amygdaloids’ bassist Colin Dempsey perform as an acoustic duo called So We Are.
- LeDoux JE (1996) The Emotional Brain. New York: Simon and Schuster.
- Gazzaniga MS, LeDoux JE (1978) The Integrated Mind. New York: Plenum.
- LeDoux JE (1994) Emotion, memory and the brain. Sci Am 270:50-57.
- LeDoux JE (2002) Synaptic Self: How our brains become who we are. New York: Viking; LeDoux JE (2000) Emotion circuits in the brain. Annu Rev Neurosci 23:155-184; Rodrigues SM, Schafe GE, LeDoux JE (2004) Molecular mechanisms underlying emotional learning and memory in the lateral amygdala. Neuron 44:75-91; Johansen JP, Cain CK, Ostroff LE, LeDoux JE (2011) Molecular mechanisms of fear learning and memory. Cell 147:509-524.
- Phelps EA, LeDoux JE (2005) Contributions of the amygdala to emotion processing: from animal models to human behavior. Neuron 48:175-187; Phelps EA (2006) Emotion and cognition: insights from studies of the human amygdala. Annu Rev Psychol 57:27-53.
- LeDoux JE (2002) Synaptic Self: How our brains become who we are. New York: Viking; LeDoux JE (2015) Anxious: Using the Brain to Understand and Treat Fear and Anxiety. New York: Viking.
- Morgan MA, Romanski LM, LeDoux JE (1993) Extinction of emotional learning: contribution of medial prefrontal cortex. Neurosci Lett 163:109-113; Morgan MA, LeDoux JE (1995) Differential contribution of dorsal and ventral medial prefrontal cortex to the acquisition and extinction of conditioned fear in rats. Behav Neurosci 109:681-688; Sotres-Bayon F, Bush DE, LeDoux JE (2004) Emotional perseveration: an update on prefrontal-amygdala interactions in fear extinction. Learn Mem 11:525-535.
- LeDoux JE (1996) The Emotional Brain. New York: Simon and Schuster; LeDoux JE (2002) Synaptic Self: How our brains become who we are. New York: Viking; LeDoux JE (2015) Anxious: Using the Brain to Understand and Treat Fear and Anxiety. New York: Viking; Shin, L.M., S.L. Rauch, R.K. Pitman. “Amygdala, Medial Prefrontal Cortex, and Hippocampal Function in PTSD.” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences (2006) 1071:67–79; Mathew, S.J., R.B. Price, and D.S. Charney. “Recent Advances in the Neurobiology of Anxiety Disorders: Implications for Novel Therapeutics.” American Journal of Medical Genetics Part C, Seminars in Medical Genetics (2008) 148C:89–98.
- Nader K and Einarsson EO (2010) Memory Reconsolidation: An Update. Ann NY Acad Sci 1191:27-41; Dudai Y and Eisenberg M (2004) Rights of passage of the engram: Reconsolidation and the lingering consolidation hypothesis. Neuron 44:93-100; Tronson NC and Taylor JR (2007) Molecular mechanisms of memory reconsolidation. Nat Rev Neurosci 8:262-275; Alberini CM (ed.) (2013) Memory Reconsolidation. New York: Elsevier.
- Monfils MH, Cowansage KK, Klann E, LeDoux JE (2009) Extinction-reconsolidation boundaries: key to persistent attenuation of fear memories. Science 324:951-955; Schiller D, Monfils MH, Raio CM, Johnson DC, LeDoux JE, Phelps EA (2010) Preventing the return of fear in humans using reconsolidation update mechanisms. Nature 463:49-53; Schiller D, Kanen JW, LeDoux JE, Monfils MM, and Phelps EA (2013) Extinction during reconsolidation of thereat memory diminishes prefrontal cortex involvement. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 110:20040-20045.
- Xue YX, Luo YX, Wu P, Shi HS, Xue LF, Chen C, Zhu WL, Ding ZB, Bao YP, Shi J, Epstein DH, Shaham Y, Lu L (2012) A memory retrieval-extinction procedure to prevent drug craving and relapse. Science 336:241-245.
- LeDoux J (2012) Rethinking the emotional brain. Neuron 73:653-676.
- LeDoux JE (2014) Coming to terms with fear. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 111:2871-2878.
- LeDoux JE (2015) Feelings: What are they and how does the brain make them? Daedalus 144.
- LeDoux JE (2015) Anxious: Using the Brain to Understand and Treat Fear and Anxiety. New York: Viking.