Even with a giggling crew of friends in the half-light of a smoky, bustling pub, attempting a karaoke version of Christina Aguilera’s “Genie in a Bottle” might make anyone nervous.

Luca DiCecco

It’s a different story, however, if you’re alone in the clinical chill of a Gilmer Hall laboratory wearing a decidedly unfunky bonnet—a rubberized rig resembling Snoopy’s aviator helmet but festooned with 64 electrodes that are measuring your brain waves.

The master of ceremonies for these proceedings is James Coan, assistant professor in UVA’s neuroscience graduate program and the Department of Psychology. While keeping an eye on the karaoke singer—a student volunteer—he guides a lab tech through minute adjustments to an image on a laptop computer screen. Squiggly lines, like those on a lie-detector graph, pulse and throb as the singer steps up to the mic.

Coan pays little heed to vocal quality. Instead, he’s measuring embarrassment. And to measure it, he has to provoke it.

The point is not to humiliate. It’s to build a model that can predict success in college, or any new and potentially threatening setting. The EEG cap takes neurophysiologic measurements of the brain’s electrical activity. Coan decodes the data to gauge how well a first-year student might meet new academic and social challenges while coping with the pangs of homesickness.

James Coan Luca DiCecco

The effort represents another stride for Coan in the field of affective neuroscience—the study of the neural mechanisms of emotion. This offspring of biology and psychology has grown over the past 20 years, overturning stodgy old-schoolers who dismissed efforts to quantify emotions as “fuzzy, superfluous or goofy,” Coan says.

Coan and others seek to detect and chart how moods and emotions are embodied in the brain, to map the nexus where the cognitive and the affective meet. Emotion, Coan says, is an organized set of physiological and behavioral responses to environmental stimuli. His research combines various disciplines to look at “emotional expression and individual emotion-regulation capabilities, as well as the social regulation of neural processes underlying emotional responses.”

In an earlier study, one that generated significant media coverage, Coan examined the response of subjects to human touch while they were in a stressful situation—anticipating a low-level shock while undergoing functional magnetic resonance imaging. He quantified, to a dramatic extent, what lovers, poets and parents already knew: A loving touch reassures.

In the case of the EEG cap, mapping the parts of the brain that deal with embarrassment and performance anxiety is helping to build predictive models of an individual’s social finesse—or how one deals gracefully with potentially threatening social situations. The results from this and further studies could inspire pharmacological solutions to various forms of stress, to predict that a student’s sense of unease might provoke serious loneliness, resulting in academic struggles or worse.

The zing of Coan’s experiment lies in its predictive aspect. Can science not only measure emotion but also forecast the outcome of someone’s particular emotional problem or strength?

The answer to that question lies ahead, as do many inquiries in a realm of science that is blazing trails in our knowledge of the brain through the use of sophisticated imaging techniques. 

Where MRIs provide static pictures of brain activity, functional MRIs allow researchers to watch the brain in action. “You’re actually tracking the flow of blood through the brain,” Coan says.

Where MRIs provide static pictures of brain activity, functional MRIs allow researchers to watch the brain in action. “You’re actually tracking the flow of blood through the brain,” Coan says.

During his tenure at UVA, upgrades have brought equipment to world-class levels, he says. A projection system allows subjects to watch a video screen, and researchers are able to observe people’s faces while they lie in the scanner.

Another UVA professor blazing trails in brain research is Barry Condron, biology professor and director of the neuroscience program. But while Coan’s subjects are flesh-and-blood humans, Condron’s are fruit flies, the ubiquitous drosophila. In his lab, also in Gilmer Hall, he and co-workers are taking advantage of the fruit flies’ comparatively simple neurological system to gain a glimpse of a not-so-simple target—how the brain is pieced together.

Barry Condron Luca DiCecco

Condron’s lab has already started cracking the code of how fruit flies sense the world. Developing high-level mathematics and computer models that mimic the neuronal processes of genetically altered drosophila, the experimenters have succeeded in understanding, on a computational basis, part of a fly’s brain. That is laying the groundwork for more sophisticated subjects, such as a mouse’s brain, and, inevitably, the human brain.

Condron, recipient of a five-year, $1 million grant from the W.M. Keck Foundation recognizing distinguished young scholars in medical research, approaches his work as a reductionist: Break things down to manageable bits, scrutinize them and extrapolate.

Condron began “breaking things down” for more pragmatic purposes than deciphering consciousness. His earlier work centered, too, on fruit flies and parsing out the ways that their developing brains formed neuronal connections. Zeroing in on those processes could lead, he believes, to implications for human medicine—new therapies for diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s as well as more effective interventions for brain trauma.

He’s also researching the ways the brain changes as we age, how the complex wiring formed while we are still in stages of fetal development gets modified by our experience and the passage of time. Such research spins off one of the more critical insights neuroscience has provided in the past few years—that the adult brain is not as inflexible as we once believed. Instead, its recently discovered neuroplasticity enables it to respond and reshape itself to accommodate aging and other circumstances.

Condron envisions yet more radical developments. “I say the brain is a computer, and the computer a simple brain and eventually they’ll join up,” he says. “The brain is a reducible thing, and consciousness—a conversation, for example—is equations. Those equations will likely never be solved by me or my grandchildren. And we have to remember that there are people out there who say that because the human brain is so complex, we need something more than the human brain to fully understand it.

“My modus operandi, however, is that such a way of thinking is defeatist, and it’s not true,” Condron insists. “We can solve the equations. You can say, as doubters did to Edmund Hillary when he attempted Everest, ‘We’ll never get there.’ But there’s no reason not to keep the journey going.”

Such determination might stem from Condron’s studies under the first graduate student of James Watson, of the Watson-Crick team famed for its DNA revelations at the University of Cambridge. And his devotion to science might come from the infectious curiosity of his father. A soldier and amateur scientist, Condron’s father would track the movement of moths in parts of Ireland.

Coan is likewise rooted in a blue-collar background. Son of a roofer and a high-school receptionist, he grew up in working-class Silver Spring, Md., “eating Pop-Tarts and watching Bugs Bunny reruns.” Math stumped him (he flunked first-year algebra); art school beckoned. He did a lot of theater and played dime-store bass in rock/jazz outfits.

First medicine, and later science, turned his attention away from a purely artistic path. “I liked the purity, the rigor of science, the fact that scientists are so passionate about avoiding mistakes,” Coan says. “And I sensed, too, that the moment of scientific inspiration was similar to that of artistic expansion. The main difference is that art is much more concerned with the subjective, while science is concerned with the objective.”

His hand-holding study, published under the title “Lending a Hand: Social Regulation of the Neural Response to Threat” in December 2006’s Psychological Science, proved a breakthrough on several fronts. It has been chronicled not only in scientific journals but also in mainstream media such as the New York Times and the Discovery Channel.

The research was based on three central hypotheses: that “both spouse and stranger hand-holding would attenuate threat-responsive activity”; “that such attenuation would be maximized during spousal hand-holding”; and that such a response would be “a partial function of marital quality, with higher marital quality predicting greater attenuation.”

Most calming of all, though, was the hand-holding of a husband and wife in a very happy marriage.

In setting up the study, Coan reasoned that using functional magnetic resonance imaging would allow him to measure brain activity. Using touch would supply an effective index of social interaction.

And so, working at the time at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Coan assembled 16 volunteers—thirtysomething wives who had rated the relative happiness of their marriages on a scale from 1 to 151. One by one, electrodes on their ankles, they clambered into the glistening MRIs and lay motionless, computer screens alerting them to low-level incoming, intermittent electric shocks. Crammed into the laboratory just inches away from the volunteers were a technician, nicknamed “The Hand,” and each subject’s spouse.

The claustrophobia and shock provided significant threat, but invariably fears subsided with another’s touch. The degree of response climbed with intimacy. The stranger’s hand (the technician) proved calming; a spouse’s touch, more so. Most calming of all, though, was the hand-holding of a husband and wife in a very happy marriage. 

For Coan, the fact of the efficacy of touch wasn’t surprising. What was, however, was the subtlety, precision and accuracy with which the brain registered it and the emotion it provoked.

“Structures involved in the instantiation of emotion in the brain have for a very long time been considered primitive, beholden to very basic stimuli,” Coan says. “We’ve discovered, on the contrary, that these structures are exquisitely sensitive, not only to whose hand is held, but, even more amazingly, to the quality, the symbolic meaning, of the relationship between the hand-holders. The news flash was that we found that these very basic emotional structures are powerfully attuned to our social environment.”

The key word here, as always for Coan, is “social.” Indeed, what continues to distinguish his work from that of many of his more orthodox colleagues in brain research is his fascination with and fervor for understanding life’s “socioemotional” richness. That pursuit has meant he’s moving the experimental paradigm of his field further from the individual and more to the communal.

While, for example, his peers have studied the effects of stress on individual subjects and researched ways to reduce it—such as meditation, cognitive behavioral therapy and physical exercise—Coan looks at stress reduction, as he looks at so much else, as a socially regulated enterprise. 

“If an ultimate goal for all of us is maximal health and well-being,” he says, “people need to learn how to allow themselves to be soothed by others. In all likelihood, that ability is at least as important as our ability to calm ourselves. Probably more so. After all, we’re intensely social as a species.”   

Pausing to tinker with a palm-sized EEG cap specially designed for babies, Coan reflects on the “behavioral ecology” of the brain when its owner perceives it to be in good company. “If you think you have someone to help you, the brain—which is, like water, always seeking its own level, trying to get the most from the least—is making a simple bet. It’s saying, ‘If I have any difficulty now, I have some help.’

“Emotional information, you see, definitively informs how we perceive information coming from our senses. And we’re just beginning to chart the implications of that knowledge.”