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Concordian Rachel Dufour wins inaugural Grands Sages Brenda Milner research award in neuroscience

The psychology PhD student is recognized for her work investigating eating disorder processes in youth
January 19, 2024
3d rendered image of Neuron cell network on black background.

Concordia doctoral student in psychology Rachel Dufour has won the first Grands Sages Brenda Milner Award for exceptional neuroscience research. The award, one of three new prizes for doctoral students from the Fonds de recherche du Québec (FRQ), was presented by Quebec’s chief scientist Rémi Quirion on November 23.

The Grands Sages awards are conferred to individuals who receive a doctoral scholarship from the FRQ the previous spring and whose academic record stood out during scientific evaluation.

Recipients also receive $10,000 annually for up to four years as a supplement to their doctoral funding.

Dufour’s award is named after Brenda Milner, one of Canada’s preeminent neuropsychologists. Milner is a professor at the Montreal Neurological Institute-Hospital and McGill University.

Dufour’s research focuses on early risk factors and neurodevelopmental processes contributing to eating disorders in adolescents and young adults. Specifically, she uses magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) technology to detect brain changes in people with eating disorders to better understand what leads to the disorders’ development and maintenance.

Smiling young woman with long, dark hair, wearing a black turtleneck top. Rachel Dufour: “We still don’t know exactly how that leads to eating disorders in adolescence.”

Dufour is supervised by Linda Booij, professor and Concordia University Research Chair in Eating Disorders in the Department of Psychology. Dufour conducts her research at the Eating Disorders Continuum of the Douglas Mental Health University Institute in Montreal and in close collaboration with other eating-disorder programs in Canada.

“We think that biological aspects such as genes and brain processes interact with the environment and sociocultural elements. But we still don’t know exactly how that leads to eating disorders in adolescence,” she explains.

“It’s still unclear which brain changes are present before the eating disorder and which ones are caused by it.”

Dufour notes that a common misconception about disordered eating is that social media is the main culprit. However, research suggests that eating disorders may be a result of both environmental and biological factors.

Eating disorders like anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa are estimated to affect between 840,000 and 1,750,000 people in Canada, according to the National Eating Disorder Information Centre.

So far, few studies have been conducted on eating disorders in adolescence using neuroimaging. Dufour’s study is the largest to date on this age group.

Dufour says she hopes her research can help improve the effectiveness of psychological treatments for eating disorders.

“I hope that by having a better understanding of what goes on in the brain and what contributes to the disorders’ development, we will be better able to target our interventions,” she says.

“For example, we might be able to target our interventions toward things that we know are more at a deficit in the brain, or toward things that we know contribute to the disorder’s maintenance.”

As part of her doctoral research, Dufour is also analyzing data from a large longitudinal study in Quebec. She is investigating how different behaviours and cognitive functions in childhood are related to the development of eating-disorder symptoms in adolescence.

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Concordia’s Department of Psychology.


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