Bridging psychology and neuroscience

British Psychological Society awards for Professors Sarah-Jayne Blakemore and Trevor Robbins. Maria Atter and Ella Rhodes report.

07 August 2018

Two of this year’s British Psychological Society award winners have been announced, both of whom have explored some of the most pressing issues in neuroscience.

Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at University College London, Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, has been named winner of the 2018 President’s Award for Distinguished Contributions to Psychological Knowledge. Blakemore, known for her years’-long exploration of the teenage brain, expressed delight for the recognition of her work describing it as a ‘wonderful honour’.

When she first began her doctoral research at UCL, Blakemore was studying the symptoms of schizophrenia. After post-doctoral research in France she decided to change her focus to the development of the typical adolescent brain – a relatively unexplored area at the time. Since then her work has provided important insights into behavioural and structural and functional brain changes that occur during adolescence.

Blakemore’s research has investigated the social brain and social cognitive development, mental health, peer influence and learning during adolescence. Her findings have significant implications for both public health and education and have been published in more than 125 peer-reviewed articles. She described the field of adolescent development as one which is ‘growing and thriving’ and within which a significant amount of work has been done in a relatively short period of time.

Looking at her career so far Blakemore credited the ‘invaluable mentoring’ she has received over the years, noting the important guidance she has received from Professors Uta and Chris Frith. Blakemore said mentoring early career researchers and watching their careers thrive was one privilege of her career. She also pointed to the many public engagement activities she has been involved with, including the youth theatre project Brainstorm – a play about the adolescent brain written and performed by teenagers. Over the years she has delivered more than 600 talks across the world, and gave a TED talk on adolescent brain development, which has amassed millions of views. She appeared in our first ‘The Psychologist Presents’ session at Latitude Festival, in 2015. More recently Blakemore has been elected as a Fellow of the British Academy and her book Inventing Ourselves: the Secret Life of the Teenage Brain, published in March, has been shortlisted for the Royal Society Book Prize. 

Looking to the future Blakemore said: ‘The field of adolescent brain development is still very young and there are many questions that have yet to be answered. While quite a lot is known about average adolescent brain, much less is known about individual differences in brain development. This is a key question for future research: what genetic and environmental factors underlie individual differences in brain and behavioural development, and what are the consequences of this variation in development?’   

Blakemore also pointed to outstanding questions over why most mental health problems first appear in adolescence. ‘What is it about adolescence that makes it a period of vulnerability to mental illness? What are the risk factors and what can be done to prevent mental illnesses before they start? Is adolescence a sensitive period for learning and training? If so, this makes it not only a period of vulnerability but also of opportunity. Adolescence is an exciting and formative stage of life, we need to understand adolescent development and to support and nurture young people in this critical period of development.’

Professor Trevor Robbins from the University of Cambridge Department of Psychology and Director of the Behavioural and Clinical Neuroscience Institute has been named a winner of the 2018 BPS Lifetime Achievement Award. Robbins, one of the most cited neuroscientists in the world, has spent his career researching cognitive neuroscience, behavioural neuroscience and psychopharmacology and co-developed the computerised CANTAB cognitive test battery.

When he arrived at the University of Cambridge as an undergraduate student Robbins hoped to become a molecular biologist studying the Natural Sciences Tripos. However, in his second year during a psychology module, Robbins became fascinated by the subject, being particularly influenced by Professor Susan Iversen.

Although initially Robbins hoped to move into clinical psychology he was swayed to embark on a Behavioural Neuroscience PhD with Iversen and head of Department Professor Oliver Zangwill, moving full circle to incorporate his interest in molecular biology with the study of the brain and initially working largely with animals. ‘I’m interested in making bridges between psychology and neuroscience and between animal and human research and basic neuroscience and clinical neuroscience. I’m interested in treatments ultimately because I think they are the best proof of your theory – if you can get a treatment to work you’re probably on the right lines.’

Since those early days Robbins’ work has explored the frontal lobes of the brain and their connections to other systems including the reward system and limbic system and their links with addiction, Parkinson’s disease, depression, schizophrenia and Huntington’s Disease. He uses experimental psychology to explore cognitive functions in clinical groups and the general population, MRI and PET imaging to reveal more about the brain systems involved with certain cognitive processes and is interested in the effects of drugs on brain chemistry and behaviour.

Robbins has published more than 800 articles in scientific journals, co-edited eight books, and has been ranked as the fourth most influential brain scientist of the modern era. He has been President of the European Behavioural Pharmacology Society, The British Association of Psychopharmacology and The British Neuroscience Association. He has also been a member of the Medical Research Council and is a Fellow of the BPS, Academy of Medical Sciences and Royal Society.

He told The Psychologist that, as well as becoming a Professor and Head of Department at Cambridge in 2002, winning the Brain Prize in 2014 for his work on cognitive disorders was a particular highlight of his career. He used pharmacological, anatomical and behavioural methods to model the regulation of behaviour in animals and humans and showed that the abuse of drugs depends on the formation of habits not just on the disruption of reward and pleasure mechanisms in the brain. He demonstrated that certain circuits in the brain regulate the formation of addiction to drugs and how disturbances in these circuits may also lead to ADHD and OCD.

More recently, thanks to a major Wellcome Trust grant, Robbins is exploring impulsive and compulsive disorders and the role of the frontal and striatal systems in the brain. ‘I’m interested, in particular, in obsessive compulsive disorder and drug addiction which are compulsive disorders, and ADHD which is an impulsive disorder. The main hypothesis is that these disorders arise from the disruption of neural systems which connect different circuits of the frontal lobes to the basal ganglia in the brain.’