Professor of Psychology
Cognition & Perception, Center for Neural Science


Brain Mechanisms of Reward

As an undergraduate at Colorado College and later in the Yale University School of Music, I prepared for a career in music composition and theory. In this pursuit, I became interested in the question of what impact the temporal form of a composition can have on the feelings of an audience. Clearly, the ability to perceive and react to temporal form rests on the ability to store the history of events in memory and to interact this history with brain mechanisms governing emotions. I realized that I had to turn to psychology and neurophysiology in order to profitably explore the question of form and feeling.

One thing led to another, and now, many years later, I am a professor of physiological psychology running a laboratory devoted to studying drive and hedonic mechanisms in the brain and how they interact. While a graduate student in Neal E. Miller's lab at Yale, I discovered stimulation-bound feeding in rats implanted with electrodes in the lateral hypothalamus. Subsequently, my students and I have continued to examine the relationships between a "hunger'' system that is apparently involved and systems subserving reward, pain, and anxiety. What has become evident is that the same hypothalamic stimulation that elicits eating not only ameliorates anxiety and pain but also increases the attractiveness of otherwise unpalatable foods. Opioid and anxiolytic transmitters are implicated. Apparently, some mechanism is involved that adjudicates between the risks of eating, such as attacks from predators or illness from food poisoning, and the risks of starving as a result of avoiding such dangers.

In the process of making these investigations, my lab has also parametrically varied interpulse interval, amplitude, and conditioning-to-test-pulse interval of brain stimulation to ascertain the synaptic and axonal characteristics of the neurons mediating feeding, reward, and pain. In effect, I've taken my interests in studying the relationship between compositional form and audience reaction down to the neural level where cells are presented with electrical pulses in various patterns to study the effects these engender in the sense of reward, hunger, anxiety, and pain felt by the whole audience of cells we call the organism.

back to the top



Ph.D. 1964, Yale University; B.A. 1951, Colorado College.

back to the top

Selected Publications

Simson, P. E., and Coons, E. E. (1989). Lateral hypothalamic stimulation can augment or attenuate Nucleus Gigantocellularis escape: Evidence for appetite-associated aversion amelioration. Behavioral Neuroscience 103, 612-620.

Carden, S. E., and Coons, E. E. (1989). Diazepam modulates lateral hypothalamic self-stimulation but not stimulation-escape in rats. Brain Research 483, 327-334.

Miserendino, M. J. D., and Coons, E. E. (1989). Hedonic interactions of medial prefrontal cortex and Nucleus Reticularis Gigantocellularis. Brain Research 483, 233-250.

Porrino, L. J., Coons, E. E., and MacGregor, B. (1983). Two types of medial hypothalamic inhibition of lateral hypothalamic reward. Brain Research 277, 269-282.

Carr, K. D., and Coons, E. E. (1982). Rats self-administer nonrewarding brain stimulation to ameliorate aversion. Science 215, 1516-1517.

Coons, E. E., and White, H. A. (1977). Tonic properties of orosensation and the modulation of intracranial self-stimulation: The CNS weighting of external and internal factors governing reward. In Tonic Functions of Afferent Systems, eds. Wenzel, B., and Ziegler, P. (Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 290, 158-179).

Coons, E. E., Schupf, N., and Ungerleider, L. G. (1976). Uses of double-pulse stimulation behaviorally to infer refractoriness, summation, convergence, and transmitter characteristics of hypothalamic reward systems. Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology 90, 317-342.

back to the top


Edgar E. Coons, Jr.
Professor of Psychology

Department of Psychology
New York University
6 Washington Place, Room 436
New York, NY 10003
Tel: (212) 998-7843
Fax: (212) 995-4349


back to the top