Challenge of neuroscience discovery keeps distinguished alumnus energized

Today, Dr. Terry Robinson (BASc ’72) is a leading neuroscience researcher. But in the late 1960s, he wasn’t sure what career to pursue.

Dr. Terry Robinson says the opportunity to do research as a U of L undergraduate student set his career path in motion.

After backpacking through Europe and spending yearlong stints at Wisconsin State University and Montreal's Concordia University, the native of Huntsville, Ont. decided to head west. Robinson enrolled in third year at the University of Lethbridge, where he took the first physiological psychology course taught by renowned neuroscientist Dr. Ian Whishaw. Fascinated, he asked Whishaw how he could learn more about neuroscience and ended up working as a research assistant in the professor's lab. The experience turned out to be transformative.

“I love the continual challenge of neuroscience,” says Robinson, who is now the Elliot S. Valenstein Distinguished University Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at the University of Michigan (U of M). “Each experiment leads to more and more questions and you never know what roads you're going to go down.”

Under Whishaw's supervision, Robinson conducted experiments that, among other things, tested the brain's visual discrimination abilities. He eventually went on to pursue a colloquium studies option in fourth year, enabling him to do research on a full-time basis. By the time Robinson finished his bachelor’s degree, his work had been published in a handful of peer-reviewed journals.

“The U of L set the stage for my whole career,” says Robinson. “The freedom to do research as an undergraduate student, and to have intensive research experiences, put me at a great advantage.”

Robinson went on to earn a master's degree and PhD in physiological psychology from the University of Saskatchewan and Western University, respectively. He completed postdoctoral training at the University of California at Irvine and then joined U of M in 1978. Over the years, he has served as Chair of the university's Biopsychology Program and as director of the Neuroscience Program.

Robinson has also been a prolific researcher. His 220-plus journal articles have been cited more than 32,000 times, making him one of the highest-cited scientists in the field of neuroscience. He has a long list of accolades to his name, including: the D.O. Hebb Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award from the American Psychological Association (2010), the Distinguished Scientist Award from the European Behavioral Pharmacology Society (2013) and the William James Fellow Award for Lifetime Achievement from the Association for Psychological Science (2014). He was also named the U of L Alumnus of the Year in 1992.

Robinson's research examines the roots of addiction. Specifically, his lab focuses on the repeated use of psychostimulant drugs, such as amphetamine and cocaine, and the behaviours they produce and the long-term changes they cause in the brain. The findings could have tremendous implications for the treatment of addiction and the management of relapses.

Individuals have different reactions to the cues associated with addictive drugs. For instance, whereas one person may be resistant to potential temptations, such as drugs or drug paraphernalia, another person may relapse simply after seeing those same items. It all comes down to the various ways that the brain processes such cues.

With funding from the United States' National Institutes of Health, Robinson has identified “sign trackers” – animal subjects who are more likely to attribute motivational value to cues, develop impulse control disorders, such as addiction, and relapse when in the presence of cues. Knowing who is genetically predisposed to be a sign tracker may make it easier in the future to predict how an individual will behave in the presence of cues, and his or her risk of relapsing.

“Advancing our understanding of addiction will one day lead to better therapies,” says Robinson. “But from a purely scientific perspective, it's also important to understand how drugs change the brain's ability to process motivational cues.”

Structural changes in the brain have long been one of Robinson's interests. And since the 1970s, he has collaborated with U of L neuroscientists Drs. Robbin Gibb and Bryan Kolb to study how drugs affect the physical makeup of the mind. In addition, long after leaving Lethbridge, Robinson continued to maintain his connection with Whishaw; the pair has examined, for example, how function is maintained after loss of the neurotransmitter dopamine, in an animal model of Parkinson’s Disease.

Those research partnerships, says Robinson, are critical in neuroscience.

“The field is so multidisciplinary. It would be difficult for one person to be a master of all the required skills. Collaborations, therefore, bring together different types of expertise,” he says. “Plus, it's fun to work with old friends.”