Personal profile

Research overview

I am interested in how animals and people learn to adjust their behaviour to obtain reward.  Most of my research has focused on the mesolimbic dopamine system and its role in adaptive behaviour. However, I have also studied other psychological functions of dopamine (such as reward, motivation, response selection and response initiation) in a variety of species (rodents, carnivores, nonhuman primates and neurological patients). I have additional experience in the study of the neurophysiology and functional neuroanatomy of sensory systems, particularly regarding selective attention.

Research interests

I have many research interests, including:

(1)    The role that dopamine plays in learning to adapt behaviour in order to obtain a reward - this includes the study of both automatic, stimulus-response habits and the study of goal-directed actions. The methods I use include neurophysiology, computational modelling, psychopharmacology and neuropsychology.

(2)    The relationship between natural learning and addiction – the current view taken by most authors in my field is that addiction is a form of abnormal learning triggered by drugs. There is strong evidence for this, so my research focuses mostly on learning in natural situations so that we can understand the neural circuitry usurped in addiction.

(3)    The relationship between neural computations and microeconomic decisions – this relates to one of the historical assumptions of classical economics – namely, that humans maximise the economic utility of their actions. Modern economic research has revealed many instances in which this is not the case. In such circumstances the decision-making process might be adaptive but not optimal. Cognitive psychologists have suggested that this is because we use certain “heuristics”, or rules of thumb, the are effective in most circumstances but not all. However, there is a new field of “neuroeconomics”, in which economic decision-making is described in terms of neural function.

(4)    The mechanisms by which the nervous system selectively attend to certain sensory features of the environment while screening out others – this includes the study of thalamic structures that determine which sensory signals are passed to the cerebral cortex as well as the study of parietal cortex, which seems to be involved in aspects of visual attention.

I have methodological expertise in single-neuron recording, neuroanatomical tract-tracing, behavioural analysis, advanced statistical analysis, computational modelling, psychopharmacology, neuropsychology, and animal models of drug-taking (drug self-administration).

Other expertise

Neuroanatomy, computerized analysis of neurophysiological and behavioral data

Future research

The impact of addictive drugs on the neural systems which respond to natural rewards ; the brain mechanisms by which natural rewards and addictive drugs shape habits; the effects of the neurotransmitter dopamine on learning and addiction ; the neural correlates of goal-directed action versus stimulus-response habits.

Industrial relevance

Testing the neurophysiological impact of drugs; discovering the biological principles of reinforcment learning; developing behavioural tests of motivation and anhedonia

Academic/Professional Qualification

Ph.D., Psychology & Neuroscience, Princeton University; M.A., Psychology & Neuroscience, Princeton University; B.Sc., Psychology, College of William & Mary


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