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Research themes

I was awarded a prestigious Royal Society Dorothy Hodgkin Fellowship in 2000 to develop innovative research in the (then) relatively new field of experimental psychopathology. My research in this field continues and there are currently three major strands to my research.

How anxiety impairs cognitive performance

I have investigated how anxiety may impair cognitive performance via its adverse effects on attentional control. Funded by ESRC grants, 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, my 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, I have provided direct evidence for the neural substrates of processing inefficiency and compensatory effort in anxiety. My work has uncovered the precise ways in which anxiety and worrisome/ruminative thoughts impair performance by reducing working memory capacity and impairing the efficiency of the central executive functions of working memory, with particular reference to attentional control. This basic science illustrates that anxiety vulnerability is often associated with 'hidden costs' with important implications for educational as well as clinical neuroscience.

As a result of my extensive research, working memory capacity can now be used as a cognitive marker of attentional control deficits in anxiety and depression in clinical, educational, and applied settings. It can also be used as an outcome measure to assess the impact of clinical and/or educational interventions and I have now moved this research programme into a more translational phase (see below). My seminal paper The Attentional Control Theory of Anxiety in the APA journal Emotion (2007), which has attracted just over 1600 citations, has inspired the development of new research projects worldwide.

Funded by a number of grants from the Royal Society and the Flemish Research Council together with collaborators at the Univ. of Ghent, I have systematically investigated the mechanisms responsible for attentional control impairments in depression and depressive-rumination. Using combined eye-tracking and electrophysiological methods new to depression research, I 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 highly cited major theoretical articles have arisen from this investigation.

Causal impact of attentional control in predicting recurrence of anxiety

By showing the causal impact of attentional control in predicting the onset, maintenance and recurrence of anxiety and depressive vulnerability, my work has promoted the development of more effective ways to reduce trait vulnerability to emotional disorders and enhance individual resilience, through the enhancement of attentional control. My recent publications show that by engaging working memory processes through long- term training on adaptive cognitive training tasks such as the adaptive dual n-back task, it is possible to improve attentional control and cognitive flexibility in anxiety and depression with transfer related gains to other cognitive and neural performance indicative of indicative of far transfer.

I have shown that extensive adaptive working memory training in high trait anxious individuals can improve processing efficiency using psychophysiological and cognitive measures of attentional control, indicative of far transfer. Importantly, training related improvements as a function of engagement with training predict lower levels of self-reported anxiety related symptomatology. This work has recently attracted broad public interest through the British Psychological Society Digest Blog and the Wellcome Trust as well as the media where I have been featured in How to Have a Better Brain, in the BBC Radio 4 Science programme as well as the Top Sante Health Magazine (Feb 2016) where I discuss how Befriending your Fears can promote resilience.

How cognitive change can improve psychological health

Inspired by my recent demonstration of plasticity induced cognitive change and its potential impact in improving psychological health, I have designed interventions to enhance resilience and psychological flexibility in vulnerable individuals affected by breast cancer. Approximately 57,000 people are diagnosed with breast cancer every year in the UK. Medical advances have enabled longevity but the psychological cost of diagnosis is high. Over 75% of patients experience PTSD symptoms for years post diagnosis and over 40% of survivors experience at least one episode of clinical anxiety and depression post active treatment, due to the psychological impact of cancer diagnosis and treatment related cognitive decline. Younger women are a particular focus as diagnosis at a younger age is the biggest predictor of clinical psychological distress and poorer quality of life, understandably, given the vast implications that a breast cancer diagnosis brings for younger women.

In collaboration with Breast Cancer Care and funded by an ISSF/Welcome grant as well as a 1 + 3 ESRC PhD studentship my work aims to re-build psychological strength through training working memory capacity enhancing cognitive health and protecting against the effects of anxiety and depression towards a better and richer quality of life in this population. I have founded the Research Centre for Building Psychological Resilience, with a psycho-educational purpose and a private support group with over 360 members in just under 6 months. The increasingly popular Centre's blog: Panning for Gold, showcases members' post-traumatic growth through showcasing their art, writing and science.

In collaboration with the City of London School I have conducted, through an ESRC funded studentship, a longitudinal investigation on how cognitive training can improve performance in at risk adolescents to reduce the impact of worry on working memory protecting against the longer term effects of anxiety and depression on under-achievement. A parallel line of work, funded by a 1 + 3 ESRC studentship, targets working memory capacity through adaptive attention training methods to enhance motor skill performance and the Quiet Eye in tennis players and reduce anxiety related distractibility on performance in this population.