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Areas of research interest


The Research Centre for the Study of Emotional and Cognitive Resilience has two main aims: our first aim is to unravel the cognitive and neural mechanisms behind emotional vulnerability to disorders such as anxiety and depression; our second aim is to target those mechanisms through adaptive cognitive control training interventions designed to boost resilience to protect against the effects of anxiety and depression on performance and well-being, and aid in the efficacy of treatments such as mindfulness and CBT that rely on processing efficiency.

Anxiety, attentional control and cognitive performance

  • We investigate how anxiety may impair cognitive performance via its adverse effects on attentional control. Funded by a large ESRC grant, ESRC studentships and a British Academy grant, an important discovery of this work is the demonstration that anxiety primarily affects processing efficiency, leading to cognitive impairment. Specifically, our work shows that high-anxious individuals invest more effort and make use of compensatory strategies to overcome the adverse effects of anxiety on efficient task performance. By means of comprehensive electrophysiological and eye-tracking methods, as well as by introducing the antisaccade task to the field of experimental psychopathology, we have provided direct evidence for the neural substrates of processing inefficiency and compensatory effort in anxiety. Our work has uncovered the precise ways in which trait anxiety impairs performance through the executive control functions of working memory, with particular reference to attentional control. Trait vulnerability to worry and active worrying occupy and use up the limited resources of working memory leading to reduced working memory capacity and reduced processing efficiency. This basic science illustrates that anxiety vulnerability is often associated with 'hidden costs' and has important implications for educational as well as clinical neuroscience. As a result of extensive research, the antisaccade task can now be used as a cognitive marker of attentional control deficits in anxiety and depression in clinical, educational and sporting settings. It can also be used as an outcome measure to assess the impact of clinical and/or educational interventions. In a seminal paper, we published the Attentional Control Theory of Anxiety in the top APA journal Emotion in 2007, which has attracted over 1600 citations inspiring the development of new research projects worldwide.

Attentional control in depressive-rumination

  • Funded by a number of grants from the Royal Society and the Flemish Research Council together with my collaborators at the University of Ghent, we are systematically investigating the mechanisms responsible for attentional control impairments in depression and depressive-rumination. Using combined eye-tracking and electrophysiological methods new to depression research, we have shown how working memory capacity can be used to predict the underlying attentional control deficits commonly found in depressive-rumination. A number of key publications as well as three major theoretical articles in Clinical Psychology Review have already arisen from this investigation.

Boosting cognitive immunity against anxiety and depression

  • A continuing aim of our research is to enhance understanding of the role of attentional control deficits in the development and maintenance of vulnerability to emotional disorders. A direct translational impact of this work is in clinical affective neuroscience where there is significant interest in the development of more effective ways to reduce trait vulnerability to emotional disorders and enhance individual resilience, through the enhancement of attentional control. We are exploring these issues by manipulating top-down mechanisms through adaptive working memory (WM) training to retrain attentional focus, improving prefrontal control of attention with the key objective of promoting resilience and well-being. In a recent breakthrough, in two separate investigations, we show that by engaging working memory processes through long-term training on adaptive cognitive training tasks, we can improve attentional control in depression (Owens et al., 2013) and anxiety (Sari et al., in press) with transfer related gains to cognitive and neural measures of attentional control and processing efficiency. Importantly, engagement and improvement related benefits on training predicted the reduction of anxious symptomatology over time. Our results extend those reported by Siegle et al. (2014) and Schweizer et al. (2013) where adaptive cognitive training reduced ruminative tendencies in depressed participants.

Building blocks of resilience in women affected by breast cancer

  • Breast cancer affects approximately 55,000 people annually in the UK. It is the most prevalent cancer in the UK and the most common cause of malignancy in women worldwide. However, the psychological implications of breast cancer diagnosis and treatment show that clinical levels of anxiety as well as depression affect up to 40% of survivors with diagnosis at a younger age predicting greater psychological distress levels. Cancer related thought intrusions as well as worrying over fear of recurrence have shown to exaccerbate emotional vulnerability in survivors, due to reduced attentional control resulting partly from factors such as chemotherapy induced cognitive decline that most patients experience long after active treatment. A new line of work funded by a 1 + 3 ESRC PhD studentship awarded to Jessica Swainston and an ISSF/Welcome Trust grant awarded to myself will be investigating the effectiveness of an adaptive cognitive training intervention in promoting resilience and psychological well-being in women affected by breast cancer.

Training attentional control to enhance motor skill performance in sports

  • Anxiety has shown to shorten the length of the 'quiet eye' period instrumental for efficient performance in sports. Using new visual search training tasks emphasising distractor inhibition we have found that cognitive training can enhance motor skill performance in tennis players. Training related gains have shown to transfer to untrained tasks measuring attentional control (e.g. Antisaccade task and Visual Working Memory Capacity tasks). We are pursuing this work through a 1+3 ESRC PhD studentship that was awarded to Manu Ducrocq, and in collaboration with Mark Wilson and Sam Vine at the University of Exeter.

Repressive-defensiveness and health

  • An earlier line of work has led to an enhanced and more detailed understanding of the time course of emotional information processing in anxiety and repressive-defensiveness. Funded by the Royal Society, the BIAL Foundation and the Australian Research Council, this work examines the time course of emotional information processing using cognitive and electrophysiological techniques, and is thus unusually comprehensive in its approach. The results have elucidated how the inhibition of emotion impacts emotion regulation and physical health. A major theoretical article on repressive coping was published in 2007.



Successful applications:

  • 2015 - 2018: 1 + 3 ESRC studentship and ISSF/Welcome Trust grant: Building blocks of resilience in women affected by breast cancer. (ISSF funding: £38K)
  • 2015-2017: The British Academy.  Co-PI Reducing worry in generalised anxiety disorder using neurocognitive interventions (£10,000)
  • 2014 - 2017: 1 + 3 ESRC studentship: Training attentional control to improve motor skill performance in tennis.
  • 2013 - 2016: The Australian Research Council. Co-PI with Colin MacLeod (UWA). 'The relationship between attention bias for threat and impaired attentional control in predicting elevated vulnerability to anxiety and depression.' ($967,572 AUS dollars)
  • 2012 - 2013: The British Academy. PI with Anne Richards (co-applicant). Does Cognitive Load attenuate or enhance interference from negative information in anxiety? (£9,546)
  • 2012 - 2015: The Flemish Research Council. The role of attentional flexibility during emotion processing in resilience and emotional disorders. Co-applicant with Ernst Koster and Gilles Pourtois. (260,000 euros)
  • 2007: The Royal Society. The cognitive and neural markers of attentional control in anxiety and depression International Joint Project Grant with Ernst Koster at Ghent University in Belgium. (£12,400)
  • 2006: The ESRC. Anxiety, Processing Efficiency, and Cognitive Performance (with M.W. Eysenck). (£171,436)
  • 2006 and 2007: Birkbeck Faculty of Science grant. (£10,000)
  • 2005: Birkbeck Start-up fund for setting up laboratory. (£10,000)
  • 2002: BIAL Foundation. Mapping the time course of emotion processing in anxious and repressive individuals with Ottmar Lipp, University of Queensland, Australia. (50,000 euros)
  • 2002: The Australian Research Council. Biased information processing in anxiety and defensiveness. ($25,000 AUS dollars)
  • 2001: University of Leeds start-up funds. (£12,000)
  • 2000 - 2004: The Royal Society. Royal Society Dorothy Hodgkin Fellowship. (£200,000)