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Dr. Trevor Robbins from Cambridge University will be presenting: The neural basis of compulsive behavior: Implications for neuropsychiatry.

Talk abstract:

Impulsivity and compulsivity represent complementary cases of dysexecutive control, of considerable relevance to psychiatry. Whilst there has been intense focus on the dimensional construct of impulsivity, compulsivity has received far less attention. A working definition of compulsivity is of actions persisting inappropriate to the situation, having no obvious relationship to the ultimate goal and often resulting in undesirable consequences. This definition can be dissected neuropsychologically in several ways which I will illustrate by describing behavioural, computational and neuroimaging studies in two prototypical and devastating disorders of compulsivity, stimulant drug addiction and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). One notion is that compulsive behavior is uncontrolled and excessive habitual responding at the expense of adaptive goal-seeking behaviour. Habits are governed by stimulus-response representations that do not involve goals or rewards. These two forms of behavioural control have been characterized by studies in experimental animals and humans indicating mediation by distinct, though interactive, fronto-striatal systems.

Hypothetically, addiction and OCD represent imbalance in these neural systems for goal-directed and habitual behaviour. I will examine several different ways of testing this hypothesis in stimulant drug abusers and patients with OCD and make comparisons indicating common, as well as distinctive, features of the two disorders. I will explore the implications of this research for causal accounts of behaviour including psychopathology, new therapeutic approaches, and the functional organization of fronto-striatal systems in the brain and their chemical neuromodulation.


Trevor Robbins was appointed in 1997 as the Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Cambridge. He was formerly Professor of Experimental Psychology (and Head of Department) at Cambridge from October 2002-October 2017. He is also Director of the Behavioural and Clinical Neuroscience Institute (BCNI), jointly funded by the Medical Research Council and the Welcome Trust. The mission of the BCNI is to inter-relate basic and clinical research in psychiatry and neurology for such conditions as Parkinson’s, Huntington’s, and Alzheimer’s diseases, frontal lobe injury, schizophrenia, depression, drug addiction and developmental syndromes such as attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder. Trevor’s current research is focused on impulsive-compulsive disorders (such as OCD and drug addiction) and fronto-striatal systems of the brain.

Trevor is a Fellow of the British Psychological Society (1990), British Pharmacological Society (2017), the Academy of Medical Sciences (2000) and the Royal Society (2005). He has been President of the European Behavioural Pharmacology Society (1992-1994) and he won that Society’s inaugural Distinguished Scientist Award in 2001. He was also President of the British Association of Psychopharmacology from 1996 to 1997. He has edited the journal Psychopharmacology since 1980 and joined the editorial board of Science in January 2003. He has been a member of the Medical Research Council (UK) and chaired the Neuroscience and Mental Health Board from 1995 until 1999.

He has been included on a list of the 100 most cited neuroscientists by ISI, has published over 800 full papers in scientific journals and has co-edited eight books (Psychology for Medicine: The Prefrontal Cortex; Executive and Cognitive Function: Disorders of Brain and Mind 2:Drugs and the Future: The Neurobiology of Addiction; New Vistas. Decision-making, Affect and Learning: Cognitive Search: Evolution, Algorithms, and the Brain; and Translational Neuropsychopharmacology). He was recently ranked as “the 4th most influential brain scientist of the modern era”.

This talk will be in person (Rudy North Lecture Theatre) and also via Zoom.

Zoom details:

  • Open https://ubc.zoom.us/ and click on ‘Join a Meeting’.
  • Meeting ID: 91512 289258
  • Passcode: 289258


July 19, 2023
1:00 pm - 2:00 pm


Rudy North Lecture Theatre, Djavad Mowafaghian Centre for Brain Health
2215 Wesbrook Mall
Vancouver, British Columbia V6T 1Z3 Canada

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