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Angus MacDonald.

The U named assistant professor of psychology Angus MacDonald a McKnight Land-Grant Professor in 2006.

This is madness

A young psychology professor stalks the roots of mental illness

By Deane Morrison

When the student got up to speak, Angus MacDonald should have been ready. But he wasn't.

As a young assistant professor of psychology, MacDonald knew about drug addiction. He had discussed with his class how the nice feeling that accompanies the early stages of addictive drug-taking soon becomes perverted into an awful craving. But when this student he knew talked about what it's like to go down that road, it affected MacDonald deeply.

"What took me aback was the proximity of it, that it can happen to anybody," says MacDonald. "He was an excellent student who thought deeply about issues, and he was a coke addict. But [his experience shows] that you can find your way back."

Something goes wrong in the human brain as it spirals into addiction, just as in schizophrenia and other forms of mental illness. MacDonald's multipronged efforts to find causes and treatments of such disorders led to his being named a McKnight Land-Grant Professor in 2006.

MacDonald is a hit with both undergraduate and graduate students. With his graduate students, he's made a humorous music video to the Dandy Warhols' indie hit "Scientist," and he plays drums in the clinical psychology program's rock cover band.

In his statistics class, he emphasized the introduction of an off-beat topic with an original rap song performed with his students. Each year, he takes students on a canoe trip to the St. Croix River and encourages them to think expansively.

"The challenge of turning data from humble neurons into a meaningful story about how to lead your life is one of the wonderful things about being at the University," says MacDonald.

For senior Danielle Huber and former undergraduate advisee James Porter, MacDonald stood out for his willingness to give students time.

"He gave me opportunities to talk about projects I was interested in rather than [just] assigning something," says Huber.

"Working on my senior thesis, we had weekly meetings," recalls Porter, who now manages MacDonald's laboratory. "I'd talk to undergraduates doing projects with other advisers and they'd say, 'I e-mailed my adviser a week ago and haven't heard back.'"

"His work runs from mental disorders to how the brain produces them and how genetics plays a role," says graduate student Melissa Johnson. "I'm consistently surprised by how much he knows about all these areas and how he can put them all together in a research program. Not many people can do that."

MacDonald doesn't confine his intellectual pursuits to science. He maintains a keen interest in Eastern philosophy and Buddhist meditation, two subjects he encountered in India during an undergraduate year abroad. In his search for the roots of mental illness, MacDonald asks one big question: Where does madness happen, and why?

He focuses his search in the prefrontal cerebral cortex, the outermost layer of the front third of the brain. This thin tissue allows people to perform many sophisticated tasks, such as consciously altering routines or generating new responses to fit new situations.

Using a scanner at the University's Center for Magnetic Resonance Research, MacDonald analyzes patterns of brain activity associated with certain tasks in healthy subjects, schizophrenia patients, and relatives of patients.

"We see abnormalities in schizophrenia patients, and there's a reliably higher proportion of relatives of patients who also show abnormalities," he says. Lately, MacDonald has begun studying the brain mechanisms involved in human joy and impulsivity, which include activity in the more primitive midbrain region. The midbrain may be involved with substance abuse, he says, or with the inability to get pleasure from being with other people, which is characteristic of people with schizophrenia.

One thing that interests him is what happens when people have to control an emotional response. In collaboration with colleagues, MacDonald will be studying this by scanning brain activity when subjects are shown emotionally loaded pictures--either happy or sad--and asked to either ignore or not ignore what they see.

Understanding emotional control or breakdown may one day lead to better ways of helping people through life's ups and, especially, downs. By studying functions of the cerebral cortex and the midbrain, plus connections between these two large areas, MacDonald is stretching his own mind and conveying this adventure to students.

He hopes they will find ways to apply the knowledge as they come into their own as citizens and scientists.

"The challenge of turning data from humble neurons into a meaningful story about how to lead your life is one of the wonderful things about being at the University," he says.