Alumnus wins major prize for addiction work

Photo courtesy of University of Michigan

Kent Berridge and Western alumnus Terry Robinson have won the University of Louisville Grawemeyer Award for Psychology

Western alumnus Terry Robinson has won a prestigious award for his research into the neuropsychology of addiction.

Robinson PhD’78 (Biopsychology) and co-researcher Kent Berridge, who both conduct their work at University of Michigan, will share the $100,000 that comes with winning the 2019 University of Louisville Grawemeyer Award for Psychology.

The pair’s groundbreaking work has been to help decode how our brains process ‘liking’ and ‘wanting’ and how neural sensitization in one part of the brain plays a key role in drug addiction.

Their theory of addiction suggests the dopamine system (the brain’s ‘feel good’ neurotransmitter) in addicts’ brains becomes hypersensitive to drugs and drug cues, which can produce excessive ‘wanting’ for drugs.

This sensitization can continue for years, making it more difficult for addicts to resist drugs even when they want to avoid them.

Ultimately, figuring out how to reverse that process safely could lead to a more effective way to treat addiction, they concluded.

By contrast, the ‘liking’ pathway is controlled in the brain’s smaller, pleasure-generating hotspots that do not use dopamine.

In 1993, when Berridge and Robinson first published their theory, it ran contrary to all thinking about pleasure systems in the brain. However, studies over the past 25 years have supported it, and their original paper on the subject has been cited in other publications more than 6,500 times, Petry said.

They hold distinguished professorships in psychology and neuroscience at the University of Michigan. Together they received the 2016 Distinguished Scientific Contributions Award from the American Psychological Association. Both have been elected fellows of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

“Their idea has had a broad impact on how we understand drug addiction and other addictive compulsions such as gambling, binge eating and sex,” said Woody Petry, a University of Louisville psychology and brain sciences professor who directs the award. “Its scope also extends to brain disorders such as schizophrenia and depression.”

Recipients of the 2019 Grawemeyer Awards reward outstanding ideas in music, world order, psychology, education and religion. Winners will visit Louisville in April to accept their awards and give free talks on their winning ideas.

Robinson, raised and educated in Canada, is head of the Robinson Behavioral Neuroscience Lab in the Department of Psychology at University of Michigan and is Director of the NIDA Training.