Cognition, Development and Disorders Research

Cognition, Development and Disorders Research

The group investigates normal and abnormal brain processes across the lifespan and to inform evidence-based practice and policy.

Reading for Enjoyment in Primary School: The Impact of Student Volunteers

Dr Katerina Kantartzis, Dr Emily Coyne, Dr Amy Cook and Dr Emily Harrison

This work refers to the work of Dr Katerina Kantartzis member of the CAP Research. This research has high potential impact in the local community as we are engaging Birmingham City University students with local schools. The impact for communities is important, as all three of the initial schools in the project are in very deprived areas of Birmingham, where students struggle both academically but often socially. Students will hopefully become role models for some of these children. 

Attentional processes in healthy and diseased brains throughout the lifespan: A cross-disciplinary approach

Dr Eirini Mavritsaki

This case study refers to work conducted by members of the Centre for Applied Psychological Research (CAP Research), in collaboration with colleagues at the University of Nottingham (Dr Harriet Allen), The University of Oxford (Prof. Glyn Humphreys), Russell Hall hospital and Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona, Spain (Prof. Gustavo Deco) and Birmingham City University (Dr Amy Cook).

In general, the interdisciplinary approach used in combination with the novel model based analysis of fMRI data can change the way researchers worldwide view research methods. Additionally, outcomes of the project will enhance significantly our knowledge of the underlying processes of attention and how these alter throughout the lifespan.

There is now considerable evidence indicating that attentional functions decrease across the lifespan – a loss linked both to reductions in neuronal volume and to the depletion of neurotransmitters. However, it remains difficult to understand how general changes at a neuronal level impact at a specific level on particular cognitive functions.

A full understanding of human cognition requires not only that we understand the functional modules that make up different cognitive systems, but also that we link the operations of these modules back to the basic physiological mechanisms that underlie functional performance. This is a difficult task. Processing at the level of single neurons is already complex, and this problem becomes greatly magnified when interactions between large numbers of neurons are considered – yet modelling at the level of multiple neurons is required if emergent, whole-system behaviour is to be understood and linked to data at the level of cognitive systems.

This approach was used in the first part of this research in which we developed the spiking Search over Time and Space (sSoTS) model. The sSoTS model successfully linked low level properties of the system with whole system behaviour in the traditionally used visual search experiments for investigating the attentional mechanisms. At the same time we used an interdisciplinary approach, where we conducted behavioural and fMRI experiments and directly linked the outcomes of those experiments with the sSoTS model.

Additionally, we expanded this approach by directly linking neuropsychology data from visual neglect and extinction with the sSoTs model. These findings have already been published and have received an award from the British Psychological Society for ‘outstanding contribution to research in the area of cognitive psychology’.

In collaboration with Dr Amy Cook in Birmingham City University, this research continues in child populations where we investigate the attentional properties in children with ADHD. The aim of this part of the research is to use behavioural, food diaries and computational studies to investigate the changes in attention in children with ADHD and how are these linked with neurotransmitter changes, as predicted by the sSoTS model.

Moreover, in this part we investigate the link of food colourings with ADHD and the links with neurotransmitter function. Results from this research will enhance our understanding of the link between ADHD and food colourings, which will help to identify a more sensitive diagnostic test for ADHD.

Additionally, this research is also being expanded to Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. There is a differentiation in performance in attentional tasks between Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s and this seems to be directly linked with neurotransmitter function. We are further investigating this using the sSoTS model. Outcomes from this part of the research will allow early diagnosis, as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s have similar symptoms at early stages of the disease.

Cross-cultural differences in cognition

Dr Panagiotis Rentzelas and Dr Eirini Mavritsaki

Extensive literature suggests that members of different cultures differ in cognitive, emotional and motivations styles (Markus & Kitayama, 1991; Kitayama & Uskul, 2010; Nisbet & Masuda, 2006; Fiske, 2009).   Research comparing members of interdependent and collectivist East Asian cultures with independent and individualist European American cultures into picture perception showed that East Asians are more likely to attend the perceptual field as whole and to perceive relationships between a salient object and background than European Americans (Nisbett & Masuda, 2006).

A similar pattern of cognitive differences has been found to members of the same culture but belonging to different social and economic groups (Uskul, Kitayama and Nisbett, 2012). Furthermore, research experimentally manipulating the cultural norms of individualism and collectivism in a minimal group paradigm managed to attenuate cultural-specific preferences for social factors beneficial in human motivation (Hagger, Rentzelas and Chatzisarantis, 2014). Suggesting that the psychological cross-cultural differences can be informed by ecological and contextual factors.

However, research on visual perception has focused on investigating cross cultural differences related to bottom-up information, missing out on top-down information.  Top-down information is very important (Mavritsaki and Rentzelas, in press), especially while driving, when the driver is attending for example the car speed information mainly due to top-down saliency (e.g.  Relevant to the speed limit) and not based on its bottom-up salience. It also, has applications in advertisement and internet surfing as in both, different groups will attend to the information presented on their visual screen differently.