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Alison Adcock, MD, PhD

Assistant Professor of Psychiatry, Neurobiology, and Psychology & Neuroscience at Duke
Core Faculty in the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience.

In my early training in neurobiology at Yale University, I was interested in why non-human primates outperform humans on some learning tasks.  I assumed this reflected the incentives universally used to test primates, and devised a learning and memory task that primates could not solve on the basis of reward association. Then, during psychiatry training  at University of California San Francisco, as I watched humans learn and fail to learn from experience, I began to consider the converse question: How could motivation to obtain rewards and other incentives adaptively shape learning and memory?

Because neural systems for motivation are complex and divergent, they can represent far more than discrete associations with incentives. Work in my laboratory aims to understand how the neural circuit implementation of motivation - in particular motivation to learn - influences expectations, explanatory models of the world that we construct, and in turn, behavior. My laboratory uses conventional and real-time fMRI, pharmacological challenges, physiology, and behavior to understand how neuromodulatory systems involved in motivated behavior shape long-term memory. The work extends from learning in the laboratory to real-world spatial exploration, and integrates work in healthy individuals with examinations of these systems in youth at risk for severe mental illness. A recent NIH BRAINS award funds efforts to translate our basic findings about memory enhancement into "behavioral neurostimulation" strategies for better mental health and educational practice.