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Prof Angela Roberts awarded Goldman-Rakic Prize in Cognitive Neuroscience

last modified Oct 07, 2020 01:27 PM
Professor Angela Roberts has been awarded this years Goldman-Rakic Prize in Cognitive Neuroscience, jointly with Professor Robert Desimone, Director of the McGovern Institute at MIT, Boston, USA

Awarded annually by the Brain and Behavior Research Foundation this prize was created by Constance and Stephen Lieber in memory of Patricia Goldman-Rakic, a distinguished neuroscientist from Yale and renowned for discoveries about the brain’s frontal lobe, after her tragic death in an automobile accident in 2003.

The prize is given to individuals who have made outstanding achievements in Cognitive Neuroscience. Recent past winners include Professor Amy Arnsten from Yale, Trevor Robbins here in Cambridge, Rene Hen from Colombia and Earl Miller from MIT. Angela would have been due to receive the award at the annual International Awards Dinner in New York City in October but instead, the event will be held now virtually with talks given by the award winners.

Angela graduated from the University of Sussex with a degree in Neurobiology and obtained her PhD in neuroendocrinology from the laboratory of Professor Joe Herbert, Department of Anatomy, University of Cambridge. She had by then developed a strong interest in behavioural and cognitive neuroscience and so joined the Department of Experimental Psychology at Cambridge, first as a Wellcome Trust Postdoctoral Associate with Professor Trevor Robbins and then as a Royal Society University Research Fellow studying the neural and neurochemical basis of cognitive flexibility. While there she was the first to identify the distinct localisation within the primate prefrontal cortex of two forms of behavioural flexibility. These findings, published in Nature, have fostered new concepts of cognitive flexibility and the functions of the prefrontal cortex which militate against global theories. She followed up these findings with a series of key studies that revealed the differential modulation of these two distinct forms of flexibility by the monoamines, dopamine and serotonin, the latter published in Science.

Having been appointed Lecturer back in the Department of Anatomy she began to apply her conceptual framework to the study of the cortical regulation of positive and negative emotion. Here again, she has made critically important discoveries, in this case highly relevant to our understanding of psychiatric symptoms of anxiety and the loss of pleasure (anhedonia). Her labs findings, published in PNAS, have shown how damage to the same two prefrontal regions that she originally identified as controlling distinct forms of behavioural flexibility can lead to apparently similar symptoms of heightened anxiety and negative emotional biases, characteristic of patients with mood and anxiety disorders. She has proposed the novel hypothesis that these negative symptoms could arise from independent deficits in attentional control and punishment prediction, providing a direct demonstration of the impact of distinct forms of cognitive dysfunction on emotions as well as creating a framework for the stratification of anxiety disorders.

More recently she has turned her attention to the subcallosal region of the cingulate cortex, a little studied region of the primate frontal lobes but an area heavily implicated in depression. Roberts and her colleagues have revealed how overactivity in this area can be responsible not only for symptoms of anhedonia, specifically the loss of anticipatory arousal and the willingness to work for reward, but also the co-morbid symptoms of anxiety and cardiovascular dysregulation. A recent publication in Neuron from her lab provides insight into the efficacy and circuit-wide effects of newly emerging antidepressants, like ketamine, to treat anhedonia.

Angela became a Professor of Behavioural Neuroscience in 2010 and was elected a Fellow of the Academy of Medical Sciences in 2016. She is also a Professorial Fellow at Girton College. She says of this award “One of the first laboratories I visited as a young postdoc was that of Patricia Goldman-Rakic. Her pioneering studies into the working memory functions of the primate prefrontal cortex were an inspiration to me. She combined psychology with neuroanatomy, neurochemistry and neurophysiology to provide a window onto the cortical organisation of working memory - dissecting out its cellular and neurochemical substrates both within the synapse and at the level of circuits. Her multi-disciplinary approach to primate neuropsychology has had a lasting influence on my own research path and so this prize, in particular, means a lot. I would also like to take this opportunity to thank all my colleagues both past and present, who have contributed to this body of research. Without their hard work and dedication this would not have been possible”.