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Mihaela Iordanova wins the 2020 Canadian Association for Neuroscience Young Investigator Award

Iordanova’s research focuses on the science of how we learn
April 17, 2020
By Elisabeth Faure (with files from the Canadian Association for Neuroscience)

On April 17, the Canadian Association for Neuroscience (CAN) announced that Mihaela Iordanova, an associate professor in the department of Psychology, is the winner of the 2020 CAN Young Investigator Award.

“I am utterly elated and incredibly grateful to the committee for winning this award,” says Iordanova.

“To me, this award is essentially a recognition that my approach to neuroscience is yielding important discoveries and that my work is of interest and value beyond my immediate environment. It is an incredible achievement to have people I aspire to tell me, and the world, that I am making an important contribution to neuroscience. It is humbling yet really invigorating.”

“Dr. Iordanova’s research has implications for learning and memory disorders as well as the management of addiction and anxiety, conditions that can be treated clinically by behavior modifying therapies,” notes the CAN in their official announcement.

“Dr. Iordanova has already proven to be an exemplary scientist – we are proud to present her with the CAN 2020 Young Investigator Award.”

Iordanova is a Canada Research Chair (Tier 2) in Behavioural Neuroscience, and a 2016 NARSAD Young Investigator. She was the recipient of a K99/R00 Pathways to Independence award from the National Institute on Drug Abuse in 2012.

Studying how we learn

Iordanova’s research combines sophisticated behavioral models with the latest neuroscience techniques to understand how learning is implemented in the brain. Her work focuses on studying how the brain establishes associative relationships between events in the environment, how it updates prior knowledge with new information, and how it can make novel inferences about the world based on its current knowledge.

Associative learning underscores our ability to make (accurate) predictions about the world, which in turn allows us to behave in a way that is appropriate to a given situation. Iordanova has made key discoveries in the area of associative learning and behavioural neuroscience.

To understand how the brain establishes associative relationships, she has honed in on uncovering the brain mechanism of prediction error, the critical teaching signal that instructs learning. Prediction error occurs when reality fails to match predictions. Iordanova’s research sheds light on how this process occurs in the brain.

The ability to update previously established predictions and in turn modify behaviour allows us to reduce or even eliminate inefficient actions.

Updating knowledge

A second important concept Iordanova is studying focuses on this process of updating specifically when our predictions about upcoming events surpass reality.

This form of learning leads to a downward adjustment of our predictions and an inhibition of established behaviour. Work done in the Iordanova laboratory studies this learning across a variety of conditions and has led to important insight into cortical and subcortical brain regions in this learning.

Finally, the Iordanova laboratory also investigates how emotional memories can become linked to memories from the past or generalized to newly acquired memories, thus adding an emotional component to normally neutral memories. For example, a specific cue can be associated with a fear inducing outcome, and a second, initially neutral cue, once associated with the first cue, may become emotionally charged (fear producing). Iordanova has been studying the neurobiology of how emotional memories propagate across the memory network.

By bringing together many different aspect of learning, from initial learning to updating, across different emotional states, from appetitive (reward) to aversive (fear), Iordanova’s research has led to a better understanding of the complex interaction of brain regions, and signals that promote learning and memory.

Praise from her colleagues

The importance of Iordanova’s work goes beyond the basic science of understanding how the brain responds to reward and fear – it is relevant to clinical settings as behavioural and pharmacological approaches used to reduce unwanted behaviour are the backbone to clinical treatments for anxiety and addiction, such as cue exposure therapy.

 “Mihaela’s focus is to bridge the gap between the appetitive and aversive fields and understand how these events interact behaviorally and in the brain,” says Geoffrey Schoenbaum, branch chief and distinguished investigator at the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

“This line of research is completely novel and will sure make an important impact on the field. Thus she has continued to make fundamental discoveries with regard to behavioral neuroscience and has become a strong leader in the field.”

“Dr. Mihaela Iordanova has proven to be a deep-thinker who has made unique and very important contributions to the field of neuroscience,” says Cecilia Flores, a professor McGill University’s department of Psychiatry.

‘This award has given me the green light’

“I have had some ideas float around in my head about what new things we could do,” says Iordanova about her future plans.

“I have wanted to expand the team and get into some questions on categorization. We are constantly putting information into categories. Right now, during the COVID 19 crisis, we are probably all preoccupied with classifying places and objects that may increase our likelihood of encountering the contagion. It’s an adaptive and efficient way of processing information. I want to start looking into how the brain classifies information from the environment on the basis of predictive history.”

“The award has given me the green light to bring those ideas forward and explore their potential realization.”

Iordanova’s research is supported by federal and provincial funding agencies including the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the National Sciences and Engineering Research Council, and Fonds de Recherche du Quebec - Nature et Technologies. She is a member of the College of reviewers and serves on the editorial boards of eLife, The Journal of Neuroscience, Scientific Reports, Behavioural Neuroscience, Learning & Behaviour, and The Journal of Experimental Psychology: Animal Learning and Cognition.

Learn more about Mihaela Iordanova’s research on her website:

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