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December 6, 2001 Psychology researcher awarded major grants



Andreas Arvanitogiannis

Assistant Psychology Professor Andreas Arvanitogiannis

Photo by Christian Fleury

by Janice Hamilton

Assistant Psychology Professor Andreas Arvanitogiannis has been awarded a Canada Research Chair in behavioural neurobiology, and a $426,000 infrastructure grant from the Canada Foundation for Innovation.

The chair, announced last Thursday, means a lot to the university, says Claude Bédard, Dean of Graduate Studies and Research. “It will raise our profile in research.” This is the first chair awarded to Concordia through the Canada Research Chairs Program, a federal government initiative designed to support research opportunities at Canadian universities.

Innovation and quality rewarded

The chair brings $100,000 a year for five years to emerging researchers who have the potential to be world leaders in their fields. The funding pays their salaries and supports research projects that have been judged innovative and of high quality. Arvanitogiannis, who is associated with Concordia’s Centre for Studies in Behavioral Neurobiology (CSBN), is studying influences on behaviour that is directed towards goals or rewards.

Arvanitogiannis, who was born in Greece, is one of Concordia’s rising stars. He did his undergraduate studies and a PhD and post-doctoral work at Concordia, and received a Medical Research Council Fellowship that allowed him to spend a year and a half at Harvard University, where he learned new techniques in molecular biology.

With this newly acquired expertise and the CFI infrastructure grant, he will be able to bring state-of-the art equipment to the CSBN labs. The internationally known CSBN promotes interdisciplinary research on fundamental brain mechanisms underlying motivation and learning.

To understand the links between the brain and behaviour, researchers at the Centre for Studies in Behavioral Neurobiology combine traditional behavioural techniques with neuroanatomy, neurochemistry, pharmacology, endocrinology, molecular biology, electrophysiology, and brain imaging.

Arvanitogiannis has focused his research on two main areas, and now he plans to merge them and see what insights that approach will bring. The first area is goal-directed behaviour, such as the kinds of behaviours humans and animals demonstrate when they search for food. He has expanded that investigation to include drug abuse, which is a compulsive type of goal-directed behaviour.

“Substance abuse and mental disorders are characterized by problems of drive and impulse control that impair a person’s ability to structure behaviour toward future goals,” Arvanitogiannis explained. “These problems also reflect disturbances in basic brain mechanisms of goal-directed behaviour.” He expects that greater understanding of the neurobiological basis of goal-directed behaviour will reveal new approaches to treating substance abuse and mental disorders.

The second area that interests him is circadian rhythms, or the biological clock that seems to guide rhythmical aspects of behaviour. “This system is well worked out; we know where it is located, and we know a lot about the molecular biology of it.”

He noted that the values of certain goals can change over time. For example, sleep won’t have a high value at lunchtime, but food will. He hopes that putting what is known about the brain’s reward system and the circadian system together will bring new revelations about the way different systems in the brain interact with each other.

Arvanitogiannis will explore the behavioural, cellular and molecular mechanisms by which specialized neural circuits interact to produce motivated, goal-directed behaviour. He explained that “the control of behaviour is the outcome of an interaction among multiple, interconnected neural systems with specialized roles.

“In other words, changes in behaviour as a function of time may be related to endogenous (internal) rhythms, physiological state, external stimuli that are significant for survival, and knowledge derived from prior experience about where, when and what predict the occurrence of these incentive stimuli.” He plans to analyze these components individually, then study their interactions.