Health funding to support decision-making research at UBC

Drs. Stan Floresco and Catharine Winstanley are members of the Djavad Mowafaghian Centre for Brain Health at UBC

Stan Floresco and Catharine Winstanley, professors in UBC’s department of psychology, received funding for their research—thanks to the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) and their Project Grant: Fall 2018 competition.

CIHR’s Project Grant Program is one of their flagship funding programs. The program is designed to capture ideas with the greatest potential for important advances in fundamental or applied health-related knowledge, health care, health systems, and/or health outcomes by supporting projects with a specific purpose and a defined endpoint.

Congratulations to Dr. Floresco and Dr. Winstanley, widely recognized as leaders in their field, on their success at the CIHR competition grants.

Read more about their research projects.

Dr. Catharine Winstanley

How does risky choice drive addiction?

Whether someone is dependent on a chemical substance like cocaine, or has developed a behavioural addiction such as gambling disorder, the maladaptive choice to pursue the addiction at the expense of other goals lies at the heart of the problem. Indeed, individuals with an addiction disorder, or who later develop problems with addiction, score poorly on laboratory-based decision-making tests such as the Iowa Gambling Task (IGT) that involve the weighing of costs and benefits. One hypothesis is that decision-making impairments may be compounded as the addiction develops because of the way in which addictive drugs, and also engagement in addictive behaviours, affect brain function, biasing the decision-making process in favour of the addiction. Choosing to abstain from the addictive substance or behaviour then becomes really hard. We have successfully developed an animal model of cost/benefit decision making based on the IGT: the rat Gambling Task (rGT). On both human and animal tests, subjects must choose between four different options, each of which is associated with different amounts of potential reward and loss. By avoiding high-risk, high-reward options, subjects can maximise gains. Most rats develop this optimal strategy, although some animals instead favour the risky options. These risk-preferring rats are uniquely and adversely affected by taking cocaine: their decision making gets worse and they show increased drug-seeking in withdrawal indicative of greater relapse risk.  Adding sound and light cues when the rats win on this gambling task significantly increases the proportion of rats biased towards the risky options.  We now want to use this model to understand why the addition of these “bells and whistles” potentiates risky choice and addiction vulnerability, and harness that knowledge to pilot potential therapies for addiction.


Dr. Stan Floresco

Prefrontal-subcortical network mechanisms underlying risky decision making

Impairments in decision making entailing cost/benefit evaluations about risks and rewards have been observed in a number of disorders such as schizophrenia, depression and drug addiction. The cognitive dysfunction associated with these disorders are thought to be due in part to dysfunction in pathways linking the frontal lobes to subcortical systems and neurochemical imbalances in brain dopamine levels. However, is unclear how these different brain systems work in concert to regulate different aspects of risk/reward decision making. We intend to clarify these issues using animal models of “gambling” behaviour. We will combine conventional pharmacological approaches with cutting-edge techniques that can manipulate brain pathways with exquisite temporal and cellular precision to elucidate precisely when and how distinct neural networks are engaged during different phases of the decision process to promote adaptive vs maladaptive decisions. These studies will provide important new information about how different brain circuits interact to solve these types of risk/reward decision making problems. Furthermore, the information provided by these studies may yield important insight into the brain dysfunction that underlies impairments in this form of cognition associated with a number of psychiatric disorders.