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IGC scientist awarded prestigious European Research Council Starting grant

From intent to habit: 1.6 million euro for neuroscience research

Instituto Gulbenkian de Ciencia

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IMAGE: Rui Costa is an investigator in the Champalimaud Neuroscience Program at Instituto Gulbenkian de Ciencia. view more

Credit: Rui Costa

Rui Costa, principal investigator of the Champalimaud Neuroscience Programme at the Instituto Gulbenkian de Ciencia (IGC), in Portugal, is one of only 219 recipients of the prestigious European Research Council Starting grants, out of 2503 applicants for the 2009 edition of this flagship award scheme. The grant, totalling close to 1.6 million euro, for a period of five years, will allow Rui Costa's young research team to pursue their research into the neurological mechanisms underlying goal-directed decision making behaviour, versus habit-based responses.

Rui Costa explains the aims of his research programme, 'We are daily, constantly having to make decisions and select appropriate actions to obtain specific goals. Actions may be selected on the basis of their consequences - for example, driving work with the aim of getting home. This type of goal-directed behaviour demands constant control and monitoring of those goals and consequences - an effortful endeavour. However, if we repeat the same action often enough, it may become automatic, that is, a habit, and the effort it requires may be reduced.'

'Habitual responses do not need constant evaluation of the consequences, and are often at play even when we wish to do something different - for example, we may wish to drive home from work, but end up somewhere else. There is increasing evidence that the neural circuits underlying goal-directed and habit-based decisions are different. Our aim is to establish the differences between these neural processes, both at the cellular and molecular level. To achieve this, we will be using cutting-edge molecular biology and electrophysiology (recording electrical activity in the brain) techniques. If we could unravel the processes whereby goal-directed and habit behaviour are determined, we would be closer to understanding not only decision-making processes, but also, obsessive behaviour disorders', adds Rui.

Indeed, this research may provide insight into decision-making on a day-to-day level, for example, when we decide to make a certain type of investment, or a certain purchase, why we opt for a different behaviour or, on the contrary, stick to a routine. On the other hand, findings in this area may shed some light on the mechanisms underlying a range of psychiatric disorders, namely those involving compulsive or addictive behaviours.

Now in it's second edition, the ERC Starting Grants aim to support early career independent researchers (with three to eight years' research experience since completion of their PhD), with a promising scientific track record and proposing to carry out an ambitious and ground-breaking research proposal. The main selection criteria for these, and other, ERC awards is scientific excellence, and all areas of research are covered in the funding scheme.

Of the 2503 applications received in 2009, from 34 countries (EU member sates, Switzerland, Norway, Israel and Turkey), 42 came form scientists working in Portugal, across Life Sciences, Physical Sciences and Engineering and Social Sciences and Humanities. To date, 219 grants are confirmed, three of which for scientists working in Portugal, of which Rui Costa is one of the awardees.

Antonio Coutinho, director of the IGC, and Leonor Beleza, President of the Champalimaud Foundation, agree that this prestigious grant acknowledges the leading position of the IGC and the Champalimaud Neuroscience Porgramme, both within the scientific community, and with international funding agencies.

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