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In a lift with... Dr Ciara McCabe – University of Reading

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In a lift with... Dr Ciara McCabe

Ciara McCabe in a liiftHi, nice to meet you.

Where do you work?

I work in the Psychology Department.

… and what do you do?

I am an Assistant Professor in Neuroscience and spend most of my time running experiments to understand how the rewards are processed in the brain in psychiatric disorders, and how psychoactive drugs interact with this system.

Did you always want to do that?

I was always interested in Psychology and wanted to understand how human behaviour was formed, what makes people tick, so-to-speak.

How did you get there?

I studied a BSc in Psychology at Queens University Belfast and from there I went to the University of Ulster to study for a PhD. From there I moved to the USA for my first post-doc position where I looked at how pharmacological interventions interact with the reward system during drug addiction.

After approximately two years I moved back to the UK and took a position at Experimental Psychology in Oxford where I trained in the application of neuroimaging. This technique enabled me to study how the human brain responds to pleasant stimuli like touch, smell and taste. It was here that I first used chocolate as a tool in the MRI scanner to activate the reward system in humans, and showed that those who proclaim themselves as chocolate cravers do indeed have stronger activations in what we know are key reward circuitry in the human brain.

I then moved to the Psychiatry Department at Oxford University so I could examine the effects of drug treatments on the human reward response in the brain. Using my chocolate model I was able to show, for example, that anti-depressant treatments can reduce the response to reward in healthy people, which might go some way to explain the negative side effects of reduced reward experiences in patients taking these medications.

Why is your work important?

Unfortunately the treatment for psychiatric disorders like depression is very limited and what we have doesn't work for everyone, so we need new ways of understanding and treating mental health problems. My work aims to understand the how the response to reward in the human brain is related to disorders like depression. If we can understand the neurobiology better we might then be able to develop improved intervention and treatment strategies.

How is your work funded?

I've been funded by the Medical Research Council and also by food and drug companies.

What do you enjoy most about your job?

The intellectual freedom to test new ideas, finding exciting results and ultimately publishing these after intense peer review!

In your area of work, what would be the one 'breakthrough' that would change everything?

I suppose ultimately being able to identify those "at risk" of psychiatric disorders and intervene to prevent onset.

Who or what inspires you?

I get inspiration from lots of different sources, mostly I think I'm very lucky to be doing something I love and that I hope might also make a difference someday to people's health and that is inspiring in itself.

What's your favourite time of year?

Summer, as I love being outside.

What are you reading at the moment?

I've just finished "Big Brother" by Lionel Shriver. It's about obesity.

If you could travel back in time, where would you like to go and why?

I'd like to go back and see my parents as children/teenagers, to see how different our childhoods were. I don't think we appreciate how difficult it was for people only one generation ago and to recognise how much has changed in their lifetime.

What is your proudest achievement?

Starting my own research lab has always been a goal of mine and so getting a lectureship like this one at Reading, where I can begin the process, has been a proud achievement… Outside of work, its got to be learning to canter (um, on a horse); absolutely nerve wrecking but I'm so proud I attempted it!

And finally… who would you most like to be stuck in a lift with?

Someone from the MRC funding body!

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