University of Washington researchers probing the chemistry of thought and emotion have received a $2.8 million grant to establish a center for their work.

The Center for Advanced Studies of Neural Signaling within the university's School of Medicine will be financed by the grant from the Los Angeles-based W.M. Keck Foundation.The UW scientists seek to determine the molecular and cellular basis of thinking, feeling, moving and other functions linked to nerve activity.

"Neurobiologists have the faith that we can explain anything in terms of the laws of physics," said Bertil Hille, a physiologist-biophysicist and a recipient of the Keck grant.

"This includes being in love, artistic inspiration, free will, having moods, whatever," Hille said.

Hille, William Catterall and colleagues at the university already are involved in such research.

Among the subjects being studied are "excitable" molecules, called ion channels, found in most of the cells of the body. Without them, muscles wouldn't flex, nerves wouldn't fire messages of pleasure or pain, and the brain would do little more than occupy space.

The UW is among the leaders in ion-channel research, along with teams at Stanford, Yale, the Max Planck Institute in Germany and Kyoto University in Japan.