Professor Trevor Robbins, Cambridge University
Professor Trevor Robbins, Head of Psychology at Cambridge University has just been announced as one of the winners of the Grete Lundbeck Brain Prize: 1 million euros and much kudos for the winning european brain researchers.
I managed to grab him for a quick chat in-between his delivering the Cambridge Neuroscience Plenary Lecture. I started by asking what he's been keeping his brain busy over the last 40 plus yrs of his career.......
Trevor - Well, I've been working in several areas. I suppose, as a general topic, I've been working on the relationship between the frontal lobes and the rest of the brain. The frontal lobes mediates some of their higher functions. They control our behaviour, help us to plan, make decisions and affect judgment, and also, exert control or self-control over our behaviours, stopping us from becoming too impulsive.
Hannah - These frontal lobes are located just behind our foreheads and is very large in humans compared to a lot of other species.
Trevor - Yes, I mean some people think it’s just proportionately large in humans as compared to say, a mouse for example.
Hannah - What are the main findings in the last decades of research?
Trevor - Well, some of the main findings relate to particular circuits in the brain which are present in animals such as rats and mice, and also, present in humans. Although they're much more highly developed in humans. We’ve also worked on how some of the chemical messengers in the brain which also, the same ones that are present in rats and in humans, how they modulate or affect the function of these circuits. This is of therapeutic importance because some of the drugs we have for treating disorders such as obsessive compulsive disorder and also addiction and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder are quite effective, but they could be much more effective. So, we’re interested, not only in how the behaviours are mediated by the brain, but also, how to make them better and ameliorate them.
Hannah - So, your research has really helped us to understand more the brain circuitry involved in these behaviours of decision making and also, risk impulsive and sometimes compulsive and addictive behaviours that a lot of humans actually are affected by. And also, helped to develop new treatments for these disorders.
Trevor - Yes, indeed. It’s interesting that we discovered not so long ago that rats like cocaine for example, like stimulant drugs – cocaine, amphetamine, methamphetamine – tend to be very impulsive. They tend to be very risky in their behaviour. We took that idea and applied it to stimulant drug abusers and found indeed that stimulant drug abusers obviously by definition almost, do show impulsive and risky behaviours. But what we’ve been able to find is that these tendencies are present probably before they even start taking drugs. And so, they may predispose the person to take drugs and thereby, increase the impulsivity and we think also, lead from impulsive behaviour to compulsive behaviour. We think we know how this happens in the brain as well because addiction begins in part of the basal forebrain. That's the part of the forebrain called the nucleus accumbens. That's where the initial hits of drugs are registered as it were. But it seems they should take the drug chronically as you get exposed more and more to the drug, that it takes over other parts of the brain and these parts of the brain have very much to do with controlling habits and automatic behaviours. And so, we think that this automatic behaviour contributes to the compulsive drug-seeking behaviours you see in drug addicts or substance dependent individuals.
Hannah - And a large body of this has been found out by looking at rats that are self-administering cocaine.
Trevor - Some of the ideas are certainly stemmed from those animal models. And also in fact, ideas for treatment of some of these tendencies. So for example, these high impulsive rats can be medicated with drugs which are used in ADHD, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder to reduce impulsivity. So, this has suggested to us that it might be an interesting treatment possibly for people at risk for addiction as a way to help them control themselves and not to indulge in these risky behaviours. We’re also influenced obviously by what we see in the clinic and that's helps us to improve the animal experiments as well.
Hannah - And Trevor, just quickly now, what are you excited about about future research in neuroscience in this area?
Trevor - One end of the scale is genetics. So, finding out for example, if you've got a rat or a human that's very impulsive, what are the origins of this impulsivity? Is it based on their experience, maybe they were stressed when they were young, or maybe it’s their genetic makeup or maybe a combination of these things? I think I'm picking that it’s going to be very, very important in the future. Then on the other side of things, the greater resolution we have in terms of imaging the brain and finding out where these circuits are and where they go wrong is also very exciting because imaging is getting better and better as it were high and higher resolution. So, you can see really tiny changes in circuits which we think are equivalent in humans and other animals. I think this is a very exciting prospect as well.
Hannah - And lastly Trevor, so you've been one of the winners of the 1 million euro Brain Prize 2014. How are you going to be spending that money? Are you going to be taking your wife Barbara on a holiday?
Trevor - We’ve had several ideas about this. My computer bust the other week so I think I might be buying a new computer – that would be one thing. Then indeed, the idea of a sports car is very tempting, but I think probably, we’ll be ploughing it back into research in some way.
Hannah - That was Professor Trevor Robbins from Cambridge University on last week’s announcement of his jointly winning for 2014 Grete Lundbeck European Brain Prize.