What happens when people with autism grow old?

14_rebeccacharltonDr. Rebecca Charlton is Senior Lecturer (Associate Professor) in the Department of Psychology at Goldsmiths University of London. Her research focuses on age-related conditions and falls into three areas: Typical Ageing, Depression, and Ageing in Developmental Disorders. Using cognitive and neuroimaging methods, she examines the relationship between cognitive decline and changes in the brain. She conducts research into ageing with developmental disorders, in particular how individuals’ with Autism Spectrum Disorders will be affected by age-related brain, cognitive or social changes. Here she talks to The Conversation about just that.

If you mention autism to most people they will think about children, but it is a lifelong diagnosis. Children with autism grow up to be adults with autism. Little is known about how the symptoms change with age. This is because autism is a relatively new disorder, first described in 1943 and not regularly identified until the 1970s. It is only now that those people first diagnosed are reaching older age that we can start to learn whether the disorder changes over a lifetime.

There have been some suggestions that symptoms may reduce as people get older. These reports, describing fewer difficulties with older age, are often from people with autism themselves and from their families. But how much evidence is there for this? Our latest research provides some answers, and also raises some new questions.

Working with the Autism Diagnostic Research Centre in Southampton we assessed 146 adults who were referred to the centre seeking a diagnosis of autism between 2008 and 2015, and who consented to take part in the research. People were aged between 18 and 74 years old. A hundred of these adults were diagnosed with autism, and 46 people did not receive a diagnosis. This gave us an opportunity to explore the subtle differences between people who receive a diagnosis and those who don’t, even though they may have some other similar difficulties.

Our analysis showed that age and severity of autism were linked; that is, as age increased so did the severity of autism symptoms in social situations, communication and flexible thinking (such as coping with change or generating new ideas or solutions). We also found that older people with autism were more likely than younger people to extract rules from situations or prefer structure (for example, wanting to know how committees are organised or always following the same routine during a task).

This pattern did not occur in the group of 46 people who didn’t have autism. Whether this tendency to extract rules is a “worsening” of autism symptoms or a general trend among all older people is not yet clear.

Strategies for life

It may seem surprising that people who received a diagnosis much later in life had more severe symptoms, as we might expect people with severe symptoms to be more likely to seek a diagnosis earlier in life. What we found was that the older adults with autism performed better than the young adults with autism on some cognitive tests we carried out. The group diagnosed with autism were faster on tests measuring speed of thinking during a task and did better when dealing with visual and shape information. Perhaps these abilities have helped adults with autism develop strategies across their lives that have helped them to cope with their symptoms which may explain why they were not diagnosed until adulthood.

Older adults with autism performed better on cognitive tests than younger adults.
Jirsak/Shutterstock.com

When the group with autism was compared with the group without autism, we found that rates of depression and anxiety were high in both groups. A third of adults diagnosed with autism report high levels of depression or anxiety – rates much higher than in the general population. Depression among older adults is a risk factor for developing problems in memory and cognition. Given the high rates of depression among people with autism, it may be important for doctors to monitor mood during ageing to ensure that individuals are not at risk for cognitive decline due to depression.

The people described in our research are not typical of people with autism. They all had cognitive abilities in the normal range and did not receive a diagnosis in childhood when autism is most often recognised. Despite this, older people in the study showed more severe symptoms of autism. This might suggest that symptoms of autism become more severe with age. However, reporting more symptoms could also reflect a change in self-awareness. Better self-awareness is generally a good thing, but might lead to greater realisation of one’s own difficulties.

It isn’t yet clear whether people with autism age in the same way as people without autism – it’s still early days, given the relative age of the disorder. Ageing may also be different for each person with autism. People with autism may have developed strategies to help them age better, or may be at risk for depression and cognitive decline. In future work, we aim to see people every few years so we can understand how they change over time.

We all deserve to age as well as we can. It’s only by understanding how people with autism change as they get older, that we can start to put services in place to support them.

The Conversation

Rebecca Ann Charlton, Senior Lecturer, Goldsmiths, University of London

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

How are you? Mental Health Awareness in Higher Education

JonesSianEToday is World Mental Health Day. Two years ago, Dr. Sian Jones, a Teaching Fellow in the Department, blogged on mental health awareness in undergraduates.

She says “Today, there is more awareness among students and beyond – and more research (check out Alex Haslam’s research in evidence of this).

Yet, undergraduates I see still worry that they are the only ones not coping. This is definitely not the case – and anyone experiencing mental health difficulties is not alone”. Read on...

Goldsmiths Students: If you or a friend is experiencing difficulties with their mental health, check out the range of support available at the Student Centre.

Through the Academic Looking Glass

Earlier this month, TimetoTalk held their first ever time to talk day, to encourage us to talk about mental health, by doing simple things, like asking people how they are when you meet them.  Since university mental health awareness week (with a focal day on 19th February) ends today, and bearing in mind my experience with students, I feel the time is ripe to do as the organizations have been urging, and help raise awareness of student mental health. Here goes…

I’ll frame it around the lecture I’m giving this evening. Part of the lecture is about the power of descriptive group norms to guide behaviour. This has been shown powerfully in studies by Dr. Andrew Livingstone, now at the University of Exeter. His research focused on students, and showed that participants with a positive attitude to heavy drinking and who identified strongly with the ingroup reported stronger intentions to…

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Magic, memory, and making the most of your time at university

chris_french_131168_bill_robinson_smallProf. Chris French founded the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit (APRU) at Goldsmiths in the year 2000. Research in the APRU can be broadly divided into two categories. The main strand involves research that focuses upon attempting to develop and test non-paranormal explanations for ostensibly paranormal experiences, such as precognition, telepathy, psychokinesis – even alien abduction claims. A secondary, but still important, strand focuses upon attempting to directly test paranormal claims including people claiming to have psychic abilities (to date, no one has been able to demonstrate any such ability in our tests). Here, he talks more about the APRU’s current activities: how you can make the most of them – and of your time – at Goldsmiths.

 

Another academic year is about to begin and soon all of our students will be hard at work (we hope) attending lectures and tutorials, writing essays and reports, and generally immersing themselves in their chosen subject of psychology. But it is important to remember that being at university is not just about getting a good degree in your chosen subject, important though that is – it is also about becoming an independent thinker with the ability to critically assess claims and ideas of all kinds. One of the best ways to do this is to attend the wide range of talks and other events that are on offer to you throughout the year at Goldsmiths and beyond.

The Psychology Department offers three main invited speaker series: the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit (APRU) Invited Speaker Series, the Whitehead Lectures in Cognition, Computation and Culture (co-organised with the Department of Computing), and the Psychology Department Seminar Series. Additionally, there are many other one-off events, including conferences, inaugural lectures, and small-group meetings, that you can also attend (often for free).

For example, take the time to have a look at the line-up of speakers for the forthcoming APRU series here.  As you will see, we have an amazing array of talented speakers, including academics from Goldsmiths and other universities, broadcasters, writers and even a magician, covering fascinating topics such as “brainwashing”, urban legends, the psychology of money, delusions, UFOs, and magic. Do come along to the first talk in our new series, Dr Marcia Holmes on “Brainwashing: Fears, fantasies and facts about mind control in the Cold War”.

Keep an eye open too for one-off talks by some of the world’s leading and most influential psychologists (word has it that Professor Elizabeth Loftus, awarded an honorary degree by Goldsmiths in 2015, will be speaking here again next spring). It isn’t just free talks that you can attend either. For example, in January 2016, the Forensic Psychology Unit hosted an evening of immersive theatre where participants played the role of ‘rookie cops’ or ‘investigative reporters’ in a live mock murder investigation.

Goldsmiths often hosts conferences on topics of potential interest. For example, in the last couple of years, I have co-organised one-day multidisciplinary conferences on vampires, possession and exorcism, witchcraft, Satanic abuse claims, and sleep, not to mention the three-day European Skeptics Congress (okay, that list does reflect my own fascination with weird stuff and there are plenty of other conferences on offer too!). We are planning to hold a one-day conference on conspiracies at Goldsmiths on 26 November 2016 (watch this space).

 

Beyond the walls of Goldsmiths, there are plenty of other interesting events for you to consider attending across London. For example, I run the Greenwich branch of Skeptics in the Pub. I must admit, the phrase “Skeptics in the Pub” always conjures up for me an image of a room full of grumpy old men all sipping warm beer and proclaiming, “Bah! I don’t believe that”, but the reality is much more fun. As you can see, the next speaker at GSitP is our own Ashok Jansari telling us about “neuro-bollocks”. I will be announcing the full 2017 programme very soon but take a look at the “past events” link to get an idea of the wide range of topics that we’ve covered.

Another forthcoming event that you might enjoy (particularly if you like a laugh and/or a drink) is the Goldsmiths Showoff night at the Amersham Arms on the evening of the 3 November 2016:. I’ll be giving you the chance to see if you can hear some “hidden messages” (that aren’t really there) and there will be a host of other Goldsmiths academics talking about everything from dating algorithms to cats and class war.

I urge you to come along to these events where you often not only get to hear great talks but have the opportunity to chat with the speakers (and members of staff, students and the general public) informally in the pub afterwards. A good way to make sure that you hear about forthcoming events is to sign up to the APRU’s (free) email list. In addition to that, regularly check the College’s events calendar. If you do, you’ll see that in addition to talks and conferences, there are numerous concerts, performances and exhibitions on offer for you. Go to some of those too. Make the most of your time at Goldsmiths.

Chris French communicates technomagically via Twitter: @chriscfrench and via his Guardian blog column.

Memory and sense of self may play more of a role in autism than we thought

lornaimageLorna Goddard, Goldsmiths, University of London

It’s well-known that those with autism spectrum disorders including Asperger’s syndrome develop difficulties with social communication and show stereotyped patterns of behaviour. Less well-studied but equally characteristic features are a weaker sense of self and mood disorders such as depression and anxiety. These are connected with a weaker ability to recall personal memories, known as autobiographical memory.

Research now suggests that autobiographical memory’s role in creating a sense of self may be a key element behind the development of autistic characteristics.

Autism is much more common in men than in women, to the extent that one theory of autism explains it as the result of an “extreme male” brain, where autistic females are assumed to be more masculinised. Historically, however, research participants have been predominantly male, which has left gaps in our knowledge about autism in women and girls. Psychologists have suggested that the criteria used for diagnosing autism may suffer from a male bias, meaning that many women and girls go undiagnosed until much later in life, if at all

What we remember of ourselves

This is supported by research that suggests women with autism develop different characteristics than autistic males – particularly in respect to autobiographical memory.

Personal memories play a key role in many of the psychological functions that are affected in those on the autistic spectrum. Personal memories help us form a picture of who we are and our sense of self. They help us predict how others might think, feel and behave and, when faced with personal problems, our past experiences provide insight into what strategies we might use to cope or achieve our goals. Sharing personal memories in conversation helps us to connect with others. Recalling positive memories when we feel down can help lift us up, while dwelling on negative personal memories can induce depression.

What’s become clear from studies of autobiographical memory in autism is that while those with autism may have an excellent memory for factual information, the process of storing and recalling specific personal experiences, such as those that happened on a particular day in a particular place, is much more difficult. Instead, their memories tend to record their experience in general terms, rather than the specifics of the occasion. This might be due in part to their more repetitive lifestyle, in which there are less occasions that stick out as memorable, but also because they are less self-aware and less likely to self-reflect. However, our research suggests that this memory impairment may be exclusive to autistic males.

Missing or indistinct memories can add to the sense of otherness, confusion and anxiety experienced by autistic people.
Lightspring/shutterstock.com

Divided by memory

We examined the personal memories of 12 girls and 12 boys with autism, and compared them with an equal number of girls and boys of similar IQ and verbal ability without autism. We asked them to remember specific events in response to emotional and neutral cue words such as “happy” and “fast”. We also asked them to recall in as much detail as they could their earliest memories, and recollections from other periods of their life.

We know that girls tend to demonstrate better verbal skills and are better at recognising emotions. Might this affect the content and degree of detail they could recall from their own memories? We also wondered whether any gender differences we might find would be replicated between boys and girls with autism, or whether autistic girls would be more like boys – as predicted by the extreme male brain theory.

What we found was that autism did lead to less specific and less detailed memories, but only for the boys. The girls with autism performed more like non-autistic girls – not only were their memories more specific and more detailed than the autistic boys, but like the girls without autism, their memories contained more references to their emotional states than both the autistic and non-autistic boys. So rather than an extreme male brain, the girls with autism were more like girls without autism.

This better autobiographical memory might be one reason why autistic females are often better at masking the difficulties they have with communication and socialising with others, and so are more likely to go undiagnosed. Of course, this poses the question that if they have the building blocks of good communication – access to detailed personal memories – why are they still autistic?

There is some evidence to suggest that the automatic connection between our memories and knowing who we are, and how to use this information to inform how we act in problematic situations, is weaker in those with autism. This means that while women with autism can recall the past, they may not be using their experience to help them understand themselves and solve personal problems.

Even though they may be better able to socialise than boys with autism, this may come at a cost, as greater social interaction brings with it more personal problems, and when problems seem overwhelming this can lead to depression. Indeed, recent research suggests that among those with autism, depression in more common in women than men. This gender difference with respect to personal memories is an aspect of autistic characteristics that has been little studied, and should be explored further.


Lorna Goddard, Lecturer in Psychology, Goldsmiths, University of London

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

An Academic Abroad: Tales of postgraduate conference attendance

 

beckyRebecca Wheeler is a PhD student in the Forensic Psychology Unit supervised by Fiona Gabbert and Sian Jones. Her work focuses on adding a new Self-Generated Cue mnemonic to the Cognitive Interview to maximize witness recall.

Rebecca has also begun working alongside Trident (of the Metropolitan Police) and Xcalibre (of Greater Manchester Police) on establishing psychological techniques to encourage reluctant witnesses to engage with the criminal justice system. Here, she discusses her experience as a postgraduate conference attendee…

Conference season is just about over for a year and here at the Forensic Psychology Unit (FPU) it’s been a busy time. Anyone following this blog series will no doubt have enjoyed Ashok Jansari’s post about the challenges of completing an ‘academic marathon’. Here, I wanted to focus on the toned-down (but no less exhausting!) experience postgraduates often face at conferences.

I’ve attended conferences before, both national and international, as part of my Masters and PhD research experience. This summer was the year that I had my most varied conference experiences to date. The first stop for the FPU gang was the annual International Investigative Interviewing Research Group conference. This a quite focused academic-practitioner conference with a great mix of professional interviewers, academics, and policy makers. We also attended the five-yearly (which Google tells me is quinquennial) International Conference on Memory in Budapest. I presented some of my PhD work on self-generated cues as a retrieval aid (coming soon to journal near you!) at both of these conferences, but the experience was quite different in each case.

The IIIRG Annual Conference

This year’s IIIRG was hosted at the beautiful Latimer Place in London (Zone 8, which we weren’t even sure existed!). A small army of FPU staff, PhD students, and Research Assistants attended (it’s great fun and a fantastic source of support when you can attend in a ‘research gang’), and the majority of the attendees were staying at the conference venue, so it had a very residential feel to it. This does mean that it gets even more important to grab down-time when you have a chance! Conferences can be exhausting!

The academic-practitioner nature of the conference was also completely new to me. It made it quite difficult to know how to pitch my talk. This is where supervisor support, and lab group support if you have it, becomes invaluable. Each one of us presenting (and there were a few FPU presenters, including fellow PhD-er Ale Caso for her first ever conference talk – she did amazingly!) had the chance to sit down together and do a few run-throughs and prepare for questions. This meant we could walk into our talks feeling a little more prepared, and having had Fiona’s advice on balancing academic and practitioner expertise. This can be a really daunting side of applied research – for example, how do you talk about improving investigative interviewing to people who interview at a high level for living? For what it’s worth, it’s probably not something to stress about! In my experience the practitioners who attend conferences like this are particularly open to hearing about the contribution academics can make to easing their workload and maximizing their effectiveness. Above all, as an applied researcher I’d say it’s definitely worth approaching the people working in the field you’re trying to have impact in – they bring a unique perspective and can make some really valuable contributions to shaping your research questions.

We had a great time at IIIRG. We had some great chats and heard some amazingly varied talks that sparked some fantastic research ideas (watch this space!). I’m also pleased to note that the FPU PhD students did ourselves proud at the Murder Mystery Social – we were part of the team in second place for solving the ‘whodunnit’. Looks like our experience with Jane Doe paid off…(you can read blogs about our Jane Doe experience here and here).

 

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Team captain (and fellow FPU PhD student) Laura Oxburgh is pleased as punch with our efforts.

 

The ICOM Conference

ICOM for me was a very different experience. For starters, it comes around every five years and it was absolutely HUGE! A week-long conference, with two keynotes a day and eight parallel streams of talks. Safe to say it was absolutely exhausting! ICOM this year was held in Budapest, a city I’d never visited before, but would highly recommend. So last month I packed my bags, waved goodbye to the FPU and headed to the airport. IIIRG was the first time I’d been to a conference in a lab group, and I had attended conferences before (usually solo or just with one or two other people), so I didn’t really realize how much I would miss my gang at ICOM! Conferences can be lonely places when you’re flying solo! Fortunately, I had my super-supervisor Fiona, former boss Rob Nash, and a handful of people I’d met at other conferences around to keep me company. Conferences are also a great time to get to know others working in the field. At my first big international conference Fiona told me to befriend the other PhD students, as they’ll likely become my future colleagues. This feels like pretty sound advice.

 

On Budapest’s Chain Bridge with my future-colleagues!

On Budapest’s Chain Bridge with my future-colleagues!

 

It’s also worth remembering that people at conferences are usually pretty nice, and almost certainly interested in similar things to you. Watching talks and visiting the poster sessions can be an opportunity to arm yourself with some conversation starters if you’re struggling. It’s also worth approaching the bigger names – say hello, ask how they are enjoying the conference, ask about their current work…or do some acutely embarrassing fan-girling (see below with Roediger and McDermott – the R and M in the DRM paradigm!)

 

Roediger and McDermott (with a slightly giddy me in the middle). Lovely people!

Roediger and McDermott (with a slightly giddy me in the middle). Lovely people!

Well I’m running out of words and I haven’t said half of what I want to say – this won’t be a surprise to anyone who knows me. All in all, conferences can be exhausting and slightly scary places at times, but it’s worth putting yourself out there and chatting with anyone you can. You never know when you’ll strike up a conversation that leads to a great idea, a grant application, a job opportunity, or when you’ll meet the person who will become a close collaborator. Get advice from everyone you can before you go, ask people for introductions while you’re there (a couple of the PhD students I met at ICOM introduced me to people they knew and vice versa – it’s a relatively easy way to grow your network!), and above all enjoy every minute. It’s difficult not to feel incredibly lucky when your work takes you to beautiful places to chat to amazing people…and on that note I’ll leave you with a photo’ of beautiful Budapest. I know the academic life is for me.

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Rebecca tweets at @R_L_Wheeler and as part of the FPU team on @ForensicGold

Baby science: Making a theatrical debut

AddymanCasparDr. Caspar Addyman is a Psychology Lecturer at Goldsmiths, University of London. He is a developmental psychologist interested in learning, laughter and behaviour change. The majority of his research is with babies. He has investigated how we acquire our first concepts, the statistical processes that help us get started with learning language and where our sense of time comes from. Before moving to Goldsmiths, he spent 10 years working in Birkbeck Babylab. Here he talks about a recent collaboration with the Polka Theatre. 

Imagine for a moment that you wanted create a piece of theatre to entertain babies or a scientific experiment to test their understanding, how would you go about it? In this article I will give you a handy six step recipe that will help you get started in either situation. And along the way I hope to persuade you why these are both such worthwhile and important undertakings. The surprising thing is that the process is very similar. Despite 10 years of experience running experiments with babies I only discovered this myself very recently.

Over last few months myself and colleagues from Birkbeck Babylab  have been collaborating with the creative team at Polka Theatre. The goal has been to make a piece of theatre for 6 to 18 month old infants based on our research as part of Polka’s upcoming Brain Waves festival (21 Sept – 2 Oct 2016). Brain Waves is a two week long festival of science and theatre that matches artists and neuroscientists to create new theatre productions for children. Supported by a Wellcome Trust People Award the festival features four original works for a range of audiences between 6 months and 16 years old.

To create a show for babies, Polka turned to Sarah Argent, a very experienced theatre director, who in recent years has specialised in creating works for babies and toddlers. In February, Sarah came to Birkbeck Babylab and after speaking to a range of our colleagues she honed in me and my fellow baby scientists Sinead Rocha and Rosy Edey. Rosy studies how we read the social movements of others. Sinead investigates rhythm and dance in babies and I study what makes babies laugh. Dancing babies, social babies, laughing babies. We could see how that makes a good start for a show. Sinead and I have also spent several years studying babies’ sense of time. We were curious how Sarah and her team would work with that.

In fact, at that first meeting, we were very curious about everything…

babies1246

Step zero: Why are we at the theatre?

Let’s take a step back, why would you want to create theatre for babies or try to run a psychology study with infant participants? Wouldn’t theatre for babies be limited? Wouldn’t experiments with adults give you clearer answers?

One important first principle that seems to be shared by baby psychologists and baby theatre makers is that we both treat babies as full citizens. Theatre for babies is not theatre for adults but smaller. And science for babies is not science for adults but simpler. Baby psychologists are not simply cataloguing when various abilities come online. For us, babyhood is not merely a way-station to something better. We care about what it is like to be a baby. We try to understand babies from the inside. In theatre for babies, the ambitions seem to be the same.

 

Step one: Why are we at the theatre, today?

Our lofty ambitions and elaborate theory won’t mean a thing to the babies.  To communicate with them we have to be concrete and we have to be focused. We must always start with a very specific question. To get answers from them we must present them with just one thing at a time.

Sarah’s previous show for babies, Scrunch, is a great example of this. It’s set at Christmas and it features just one actor (Sarah’s husband Kevin Lewis). It builds slowly and smoothly, transitioning from event to event at a pace that is often determined by the babies in the audience. Parents coming to our lab are often surprised by how short the actual experiments are. Their baby may spend as little as 3 or 4 minutes doing the task we set them. To get that exactly right, you need to deeply about your goals before you set off. You must consider lots of possible options to find the best way to ask your question.

I think this is somewhere that baby science can learn from baby theatre. In my experience people in science are impatient problem solvers. You start telling them about something and they leap ahead of you second guessing outcomes and jumping to conclusions  The tempo seems very different in theatre. Our first full day of collaboration at Polka, the whole creative team assembled with Rosy, Sinead and I to discuss our work and there was no rush. People work in theatre are a good audience. They really do listen. They absorb, then they ask great questions.

 

Step two: Who is our audience?

A six month old is a very different person from a sixteen month old. A hungry baby is different person from the same baby after a good meal. An overtired toddler can have a lot of angry energy. We have to work with this not against it.

We never expect any given baby to “pass or fail” and results are based on the group not the individual because we might not get a baby at their best. For similar reasons, we rarely attempt to track the development of babies over time, preferring to test a group of 6 month olds and compare them to different groups of 4 or 8 month olds.

We try to make our tasks work with a wide age range. But often babies have other ideas. Sinead and I tried to teach babies about time by playing a game. Seven times in a row, Sinead would lift the babies’ hands every 4 seconds. On the eight time, she’d sit there and see if they babies anticipated. Four, 6 & 8 month olds played the game happily. You can see a video of this here .  But from 10 months and up, babies refused to even let us hold their hands. For them a different game would be required. In baby theatre, there isn’t the luxury of having a narrow age range. The show must have broad appeal.

Babies are fantastic participants for psychological studies because they are both open-minded and honest. They will consider anything we present them with but they won’t hold back their opinions. Translating this to theatre this makes them challenge but rewarding audience.  

 

Step three: The story

I read somewhere that good storytelling is about being simple, truthful, emotional, real and relevant. This would make for a good infant experiment too. An ideal for infant scientists would be to observe babies solving problems in their everyday lives. We can rarely do this but our lab must recreate as much of a natural situation as possible.

And it must be engaging. Infant attention is a precious commodity. After a few minutes in one situation their attention will wander. Everything is interesting to a baby. I’ve lost count of the number of times a baby has found his or her socks more interesting than my experiment. I am very envious when I see Sarah’s shows keeping babies entranced for 20 minutes or more. If I can learn some of her tricks this collaboration will have been invaluable to me.

The final rule is “show, don’t tell.” With preverbal infants, this goes without saying.

 

Step four: Rehearsal

Despite all the handy rules of step three, the mantra for step four is “Easier said than done.” Nothing will work quite as you expect and solving problems is the order of the day. Early rehearsals (or piloting as we call it) are where the real creativity happens

Sarah very wisely invites some babies to those early meetings because as we know well from our babylab, no battle plan survives contact with the enemy. In one experiment we had a ball on a stick that swung round for the babies to grab. They greatly enjoyed it. The trouble was they wouldn’t let go. It took a great deal of practice to learn how to distract the babies in just the right way it that wouldn’t provoke a rebellion.

When you get to the actual performance so much is happening at once that you need to have had extensive practice. Technical and dress rehearsal are invaluable in baby science too. In our studies there is often someone hiding behind a curtain jingling bells to get babies looking in the right direction madly pressing buttons to make teddy bears pop up on screen at just the right time and to ensure all the data gets recorded.

 

Step five: Showtime

In a recent ‘manifesto’ on theatre for children   Purni Morrell declared that “Art has to start from a shared position of ignorance.” This holds true for science too. You can’t make up your mind in advance. Or what would be the point?

And this all goes double when you are working with babies. Babies are enigmatic. If you think you know what baby is thinking you are probably wrong. Until we are there on the day with the babies we can’t know what will happen.

I do know that I am really looking forward to the premiere of Shake, Rattle and Roll .


The Festival is supported by a Wellcome Trust People Award.

Brain Waves: Shake, Rattle and Roll, A Polka Theatre Production, runs at the Polka Theatre, Wimbledon. Times vary. Tickets: £12.50 / Concessions and previews £9.00.

Tickets are available from the Polka Theatre website and by calling 020 8543 4888.

Caspar Addyman takes further baby steps on Twitter: @czzpr.

 

An end to sleepless nights? New hope for families raising children with ADHD

Alice_Gregory_Oct_2015Alice M. Gregory, Professor of Psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London. She is a member of the Advisory Board for a digital parent education endeavor on infant and toddler sleep that is being supported by Johnson’s Baby. She is a Corresponding Editor (Sleep) for the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry. She has previously received funding to support her work from multiple sources including the MRC, ESRC, Leverhulme Trust and the British Academy. She is a member of the Labour Party. She is currently writing a book (Nodding Off: Sleep from Cradle to Grave) to be published by Bloomsbury Sigma in Spring 2018.

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Raising a child with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) can be difficult. Some days feel long and the respite of a peaceful night, so rejuvenating for many, may not come at all. Parents often struggle to get their child to sleep, and once they do, they can’t be sure that they won’t wake up repeatedly during the night. But there’s good news for children with ADHD and their parents. In a recent study, we found that most cases of childhood ADHD resolve over time, and when that happens, sleep quality is no worse than in the rest of the population.

ADHD is a disorder that is widely considered to start in childhood and is characterised by symptoms of inattention and hyperactivity. Although many children seem to have endless energy, ADHD is different in that it gets in the way of a child’s development and functioning.

Parents of children with ADHD sometimes feel that they have a lot to worry about, including school performance and friendships. However, one particular issue that comes up time and time again is sleep. It seems that children with ADHD are more likely than others to have sleep problems such as sleeplessness.

So, what does the future hold for children with ADHD? Do they grow up to become adults who sleep poorly, with all of the possible knock-on negative effects? This was not clear from previous literature, so we investigated this question in a study of 2,232 twin children from England and Wales. We followed them from age five to 18. Of these children, 12% had ADHD during childhood.

Good news

Our findings indicate that people with ADHD as children as compared to those without, slept significantly more poorly at the age of 18. However, 78% of the children in our sample who had ADHD as a child, no longer had the disorder when they were 18. Their ADHD had resolved over time. What’s more, the sleep quality of those participants who no longer had ADHD was no worse than those who have never had it.

We think that this provides a positive message for families struggling to cope with sleep problems in children with ADHD. This disorder may resolve over time and, if it does, it is likely that the associated poor sleep will also be a thing of the past. Yes, by 18, they may be too old to spare their parents the wakeful nights, but parents want the best for their children and it will give many some welcome solace to know that things could improve in future.

Of course, there’s an element of what comes first: ADHD or sleeplessness? The story can be complex, and it is possible that the ADHD is driving the poor sleep. However, equally, poor sleep and exhaustion in children may be expressed by restlessness, and other symptoms typical of ADHD. Also, once a sleep problem, such as sleep apnoea (where breathing may stop for alarming seconds during sleep), is resolved there can be an incredibly positive knock-on effect on behaviour and concentration during the day.

We also wanted to understand the association between ADHD and poor sleep by testing another possibility: that these associations are due to influences that run in the family. So we also investigated this. We used our twin design (comparing identical and non-identical twins) to work out the extent to which genetic and environmental factors played a role in the association between ADHD and poor sleep.

Twins showed what was nature and what was nurture.
JGA/Shutterstock

Our analysis showed that the magnitude of genetic (55%) and environmental (45%) influences on the association were roughly the same. This suggests that to fully understand this association we need to consider both influences.

Despite spending a third of our lives asleep, historically, sleep has been somewhat neglected by scientists. We now know that sleep matters for many aspects of our mental health and well-being. Once we understand better the genetic and environmental influences – and use this information to predict who are vulnerable to these difficulties and how best to prevent and resolve them – we will be well placed to help families who are struggling to cope with ADHD, allowing restful nights to follow restful days.


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Alice M. Gregory, Professor of Psychology, Goldsmiths, University of London

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Brexit, it’s stressing me out

 

hosangDr. Georgina Hosang is a Lecturer in the Department of Psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London. Her research concerns the role of life adversity  and medical burdens for those with mental illness and the gene-environment interplay in mood disorders (Major Depression & Bipolar Disorder). Here, in the second of our Brexit-focussed posts, she considers the psychological stress that may come with Brexit. 

Strong reactions (‘tears and cheers’) to Brexit and the EU referendum have been observed among the British public. Some people may be surprised at these strong reactions and here we will explore the referendum using a psychosocial stress framework to understand why people are so affected by this political event. Other theories and frameworks could and have also been applied to Brexit.

Stress, more specifically psychosocial stress, is a common human experience (I’m sure you can recall a time when you felt stressed….) and can be defined as a process in which environmental demands exceed the individual’s adaptable capacity resulting in psychological and biological changes (Cohen, Kessler & Underwood-Gordon, 1995). Psychosocial stress covers frequent minor stressful incidents (eg. getting a parking ticket) and serious life changing and stressful events (eg. bereavement) (Kanner, Coyne, Schaefer & Lazarus, 1980). The origins of psychosocial stress may stem from events in our personal lives but may also come from those occurring nationally or globally (eg. political events or natural disasters) (Dohrenwend, 2006).

 

There are a number of reasons why people may have experienced the process and result of the EU referendum as stressful, regardless of which way they voted. The process often involved debate on the topic amongst colleagues, friends and family. On a larger scale a series of public debates also took place with several being televised and viewed by many. For some people such debates resulted in tension and even conflict (Guardian, 2016), which are known to be a source of stress (Dohrenwend, 2006). Moreover, the tone of the referendum campaigns was criticized for being negative, intolerant and toxic (Sky News, 2016) likely to further fuel conflict.

 

People’s reasons for voting to Leave or to Remain in the EU varied (Lord Ashcroft Polls, 2016), with immigration, the economy and values (eg. sovereignty or global role and peace) frequently cited (BBC, 2016; Pro Europa, 2016). Ultimately the Leave result is likely to evoke a sense of loss not just of the membership of the EU, but also the idea of European unity and peace, especially among Remain voters (BBC, 2016). Such a sense of loss is known to generate stress and is considered in the main stressful life events classification systems (Hosang et al., 2012).

 

The outcome of the referendum will have ramifications for us all (good and bad), although these are not entirely clear and haven’t happened yet.  Within the context of stress these future ramifications could involve the threat of future loss. For instance anticipated loss of opportunities has been reported as a concern amongst some Britains (Guardian, 2016). Moreover, the resignation of several political figures including the Prime Minister, has left the country in a state of flux and uncertainty which may further compound the stress the referendum has generated across the country. Both the threat of future loss and intolerance for uncertainty have been empirically linked to anxiety (Kendler et al., 2003; Carleton et al., 2012).

 

Against this background it is clear that the EU referendum may have been experienced as a stressful event for a variety of reasons. Several of these reasons involve politicians (eg. resignation of politicians) and political campaigns, but also involve conflict with friends and family. People respond to stressful events differently (Belsky & Pluess, 2009; Hosang et al., 2014), including depression (Hosang et al., 2012) and anger (Aseltine, Gore & Gordon, 2000), while others seem to cope well. Reports through the media and social media reflect how apparent these responses are amongst Britains.  In an extreme case we saw the murder of MP Jo Cox, which is thought to be politically motivated (Guardian, 2016). This was a very sad and sobering event, but fortunately, such extreme acts of violence are not common reactions. But it does remind us, especially politicians, that we have a duty to act in a balanced and responsible fashion to best manage the stress that such political events can generate for a nation.

Dr. Hosang mitigates against some stressors through Twitter, @DrHosang

Stakeholder engagement, Brexit and beyond

As the prospest of a Brexit makes waves across the UK and beyond, this is the first of two posts this week from our Department, focussing on its impact and meaning. 

Elisabeth-Hill-photo-2The first post is from Elisabeth Hill, a Professor of Neurodevelopmental Disorders in the Department of Psychology where she heads up Goldsmiths Action Lab. She is also ProWarden (or elsewhere PVC) Learning Teaching Enhancement at Goldsmiths. Her work focuses on the importance of motor development for the development of cognitive domains and daily life outcomes in those with and without a range of developmental disorders. Here, she takes us from an early foray into stakeholder engagement to Brexit and beyond.

 

Around 20 years ago, towards the end of my PhD at the MRC Applied Psychology Unit (APU; now the Cognition & Brain Sciences Unit), I gave a talk to a group of professional stakeholders in my field. My focus that day was the motor skills of children with specific language impairment (SLI). One or two children in every school class meet criteria for this condition, which is diagnosed entirely on the basis of language skill. However, my research highlighted that a large proportion of children with SLI struggle with motor development and experience the same difficulties as children diagnosed with developmental coordination disorder (a motor disorder that also affects 1-2 children in every school class). These days we know that motor development has a very significant impact on early and later development of a range of areas including language and social skills. It also has an impact on longer term outcomes – at school, at work and on mental health. However, that’s now. The striking memory that I want to share is that of a speech therapist (let’s call her Joanna) speaking to me after the talk. I remember her exact words:

“your work turned on a light bulb for me. My team will now assess motor skill in every child that comes to us for a detailed language assessment. We’re failing them if we don’t”.

Fast forward a couple of years and Joanna was in another audience that I spoke to where she told me that motor screening had been implemented in her team and, as a result, a great proportion of the children assessed now received occupational therapy as well as language interventions. At the time I was astounded. It turned out that my work as a PhD student was not only well received by stakeholders, but had effected a change. It was needed on the ground and it made a difference, even though it was invisible to the great majority of those who benefitted. I’d like to think that it played a small part in improving the lives of hundreds of children seen in that one service and that those children who are now adults will have had better life outcomes because of it.

Great Britain design with 3d shape of United Kingdom map colored in blue and isolated on white background.

Great Britain design with 3d shape of United Kingdom map colored in blue and isolated on white background.

I was reminded of Joanna on the morning of 24th June 2016, as I sat bleary-eyed watching the results of the EU referendum. I was reminded of her again, later in the day, as I scoured articles and images of the night before and wondered what the Brexit vote meant for the future. I was also reminded of her when thinking about the unusually unified response of universities (coordinated by Universities UK) in their campaign to Remain. And I was further reminded of Joanna when I looked at the Leave/Remain map of the UK. One of the interesting features of this map concerns the disconnect between the pro-EU views of universities and the pro-Brexit views of their local communities. With the odd exception, only universities in London, Cambridge, Oxford and Scotland seem exempt from this. This despite universities making a significant impact on their local communities: employing a significant proportion of their workforce from the local area; providing education and opportunity for the local community; and playing a significant part in advances that make a difference to these communities (in the present and the future). The reason I thought of Joanna was that the referendum results made me realise just how much we – as academics and researchers – need to do to bridge the divide between universities and their local communities. Sitting in Lewisham, a strong Remain voting community in South East London, it is easy to forget this disconnect. Yet we should not forget that we need to engage with our local community – within Lewisham, within London and within the world – and we are in a strong position to do so.

Human head on a blackboard with the word Autism on the brain

Take, for example, the work that my colleagues (Laura Crane, Lorna GoddardLucy Henry) and I have been conducting concerning the diagnosis of autism. Autism is a developmental condition affecting the way a person experiences the world around them, and it affects around 1% of the population. This means that over 700,000 people in the UK have an autism diagnosis, and hundreds of thousands more people will be affected by the condition indirectly (e.g., parents, siblings, carers, colleagues etc). Close to 1300 people participated in our research, which identified long delays in accessing a diagnosis, dissatisfaction with the diagnostic process as a whole, and a shameful lack of support post-diagnosis. As well as publishing this work in academic articles, we have tried to make this work accessible to the broader community. We have achieved this by: writing articles for lay audiences; making short accessible videos about our findings; speaking at conferences for academics and for stakeholders; setting up a project website; and engaging with stakeholders such as the National Autistic Society and Network Autism to ensure our findings are heard. Importantly, we are also preparing a short summary of the project and its findings for the participants that so generously gave up their time to take part in the research. The fact that we had collected comprehensive and high-quality data from three key stakeholder groups (adults, parents, clinicians) allowed the National Autistic Society to run a stronger and successful campaign to reduce autism diagnosis waiting times – the Autism Diagnosis Crisis campaign. A key outcome of this campaign was that it led to the NHS receiving new recommendations to consider waiting times for autism diagnosis as a key measure of how local NHS services perform.

identität

Research can have an impact in different ways. Sometimes the research will be invisible by the time it is fully embedded (as for my PhD research, which most of the families that it benefitted will never have come across). In other cases, we – as researchers – need to find ways to engage with stakeholders, to help them see our work as relevant to them. We must also reflect on how we can ensure that we conduct research in a way that is relevant and accessible to others. One of our many challenges is how we articulate the relevance of our work to a wide array of communities in such a way that they are able to see the value of the work we do and to consider that it contributes to a brighter future. We may not have achieved this regarding Brexit, but perhaps lessons will be learned from this.


Prof. Elisabeth Hill widens the accessibility of her research on Twitter: @ElisabethLHill, and @GoldActionLab

You can also find her research on the web at: www.goldactionlab.co.uk and at www.autismdiagnosis.info

The Talking Brain: Adventures of a Travelling Neuropsychologist

imageDr Jansari studied Experimental Psychology at King’s College Cambridge followed by a PhD at the University of Sussex with Alan Parkin and then a post-doctoral fellowship in the States with Antonio Damasio and Ralph Adolphs. His research in cognitive neuropsychology has spanned amnesia, facial emotions, prosopagnosia, synaesthesia, mindfulness meditation and most notably assessment of executive disorders using a novel virtual reality task that he has developed and which has been translated into ten languages.

In 2004, Dr Jansari was awarded the International Neuropsychological Society’s Cermak Award for best research in memory disorders; in 2008, he won a Media Fellowship from the British Association for the Advancement of Science for his skills in communicating science to the general public; and in 2014, he was taken onto the BBC’s Academy for Expert Voices. He has lectured extensively around the world and collaborates with scientists in 15 countries spanning five continents. Here he talks us through his latest geographical, neurological challenge.

 

In 2010, I managed to run a half marathon (in just under two hours if you are asking…) but this year I did an ‘academic marathon’  – I gave 9 invited talks, in 5 cities, on 2 continents in 5 weeks. Like all endurance events, there had been training in the past – I had been to Australia a few times before, and therefore knew neuropsychologists in a number of different places who had wanted me to come to give research talks. On one of these previous trips, I had met a British neuropsychologist who teaches at the National University of Singapore (NSU), who invited me to speak there if I was ever coming through. Additionally, given that one of our own Goldsmiths’ PhD students, Aga Janik had told me that she was moving to Singapore for a temporary lectureship, we arranged for me to give a talk at her new university, James Cook University (JCU), an Australian university that has a satellite campus in Singapore.

continents

London to Singapore via Dubai and then after two talks, onto Sydney

 

The academic marathon started with a long flight via Dubai to Singapore, where I spent a day and a half trying to get over jetlag -if you haven’t experienced it, jetlag means that you feel totally fine in the first part of the day but then at some point, feel like you have been hit by a truck! Added to this, maybe because of the standard lurgies that are being recycled when you are flying in an aluminium can for half a day at 30,000ft, I had a very sore throat. Therefore, when I rocked up at JCU on 25th February, I wasn’t in the best physical state, as not only was I recovering from jetlag, but worse still I coughed throughout my talk – at some points, I had to apologise to the audience for sounding like I was crying because of my throat! But plenty of lozenges got me through…. I gave my ‘Where’s the boss?’ talk about my virtual reality assessment of executive functions, which I first developed in 2004. I have been refining it since then, extending the work beyond acquired brain injury. Having created the Jansari assessment of Executive Functions (JEF©) as a more ecologically-valid assessment than the rather blunt instruments that clinicians currently use, we have since published five papers using it to look at the impact of ecstasy, alcohol, cannabis, nicotine, and more recently, coffee on the executive functions of healthy individuals. Recent work (see graph below) has taken the research into looking at the impact of repeated head knocks in contact sports, an issue known as ‘Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy’ or CTE – indeed, a lovely study conducted by one of my BSc students comparing amateur boxers, amateur wrestlers and people who don’t engage in contact sports found a direct link between level of contact in a sport and poorer performance on JEF©. Given that this work could potentially form part of an impact case study in the next REF, I think that this work could be the impact of the impact of impact J  In a final aspect of this work, we are using JEF© to look at the potential contributory role of head injuries during childhood on subsequent criminal behaviour, and the cycle of reoffending that means that 50% of individuals are back in prison within a year of being released. Click to hear lecture at JCU.

graph_jansari

Jansari & Walczak (in prep). The impact of impact on executive functions in contact sports

 

The following day, I went to NSU where I had been asked to talk about memory rehabilitation to Masters students. Although this is an area that I don’t work in that much these days, it was useful to have to prepare a talk to brush up on my skills. The talk went well but the exclusively female Chinese Singaporean student body was very quiet and not really willing to ask questions which was a disappointment – this is quite usual culturally so if it happens to you, don’t take it personally!

 

After a couple of days of catching up with my best friend from undergraduate days and also a former student from UEL who both live in Singapore, I did the seven hour flight to Sydney where the major part of the marathon was going to take place. After a couple of days of adjusting to the new time zone (only three hours different from Singapore so the worst part of the jetlag had been taken care of by now), I gave two talks organised by a clinical psychologist in Sydney. The first of these was my generic ‘Life of Brian (the brain)’ talk which is an overview of the field of cognitive neuropsychology – at the end, I make an analogy between the 3000 years since the word ‘brain’ was written down by the ancient Egyptians, and a 30 year old man called Brian, tracing major landmarks through his life….

 australia_jansari

My route around Australia from Sydney to Canberra, back to Sydney, then Coffs Harbour, Brisbane, Melbourne and finally back to Sydney

 

Having survived my first two talks in Sydney, I recovered a bit, and on 8th March moved to the Australian National University (ANU) in Canberra, the capital. There, I had been invited to give a talk by a former colleague from UEL. Since one of the leading Australian researchers in face-recognition, Eleanor McKone is at ANU, I decided to give my talk entitled ‘The man who mistook his neuropsychologist for a popstar: The fascinating world of face-blindness, super-recognition and everyday face-recognition’. In this talk, I go through research suggesting that faces are treated specially by the brain with a dedicated processing system and demonstrate evidence from a brain-damaged patient I have worked with for years who cannot recognise once-familiar faces, such as family or famous celebrities. I then flip into the reverse of this which is my work on people who are exceptional at face-recognition, i.e. ‘super-recognizers’, covering my work with the Metropolitan Police where we are using cognitive psychology to catch criminals. It was great to meet Eleanor’s team, especially since one of them has been working on the Own Race Effect, in which people tend to be better at individuating people from their own ethnic race than those from other races (see example stimuli below from my work); I have done some work on this and we discussed sharing ideas, paradigms, etc..

faces_jansari

Test items in our Own Race Bias study with three panels for three different races (South Asian, Black and White) with the faces becoming more difficult progressing through the test

 

After ANU, I took a bit of a break for ten days during which I tried to catch up with work back home, and then on the 18th of March I gave my executive functions talk at Griffith University in Brisbane. They run a big clinical training programme and so students and faculty there were interested in the assessment angle of this work. Without taking much of a breath, I moved on to Melbourne. I was scheduled to give two talks again on the executive functions work at the Royal Melbourne Hospital for Children and the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute. These two places are within one of the most concentrated medical areas in the world and are particularly world-leading in paediatric work. Therefore it was a privilege to give a talk to people who work with children with different forms of brain injury – I very much hope that this will result in some collaborations for the future using the children’s version of JEF©.

 

I ended my marathon on the 29th of March in Sydney at the University of New South Wales (UNSW). A team there had published a fantastic paper demonstrating that passport officers can make 1 in 7 errors when deciding whether or not someone is carrying the right passport (which is quite worrying in today’s global security setting….). They were therefore very interested in my face-recognition work, particularly the super-recognition work. Although this was the last talk, it was one of the best attended talks, totally packed with people having to bring in chairs – so a nice way to end! Afterwards, I had a great time talking to Professor Richard Kemp and Dr. David White, along with their team, about their work and possible research synergies.

 

And then I collapsed…… After an early dinner, I went back to my Airbnb room with the intention of having a rest for a bit before going out for a celebratory drink. However, suddenly the exhaustion hit me almost like the jetlag truck from a few weeks before, to the point where I was lying on the bed not even wanting to go to the bathroom to take off my contact lenses! And the following day, having moved to my friends’ house in the suburbs, I felt so googybrained that I lay horizontal on the sofa for most of the day making my way through four films from my friends’ extensive collection!!!!

 

So an exhausting marathon……but well worth it. Since coming back at the beginning of April, already two research projects using JEF© have been developed and are awaiting ethical approval, one in Singapore and one in Sydney. In addition, I’m in contact with the face-recognition researchers, at both the ANU and the UNSW, about possible collaborative projects and the researchers at the two centres in Melbourne are also very interested in using the children’s version of JEF© for work in paediatric brain injury.

Exhausting yes, but also very exciting and hopefully potentially fruitful in the future. I didn’t mention, by the way, that while trundling through Singapore and around Australia, I was also trying to buy a house back home in Brighton and because of a huge increase in stamp duty that was coming in on the 1st of April, I was juggling the work stuff with co-ordinating solicitors, mortgage people, valuers, etc. – my luck was in because I managed to complete on my house purchase on the 31st of March just two days after giving my last talk and five days before returning to London!!!!! How did I manage all of this without going mad? Mindfulness meditation – but that’s another story……

 

Dr. Jansari tweets around the world from @ashokjansari