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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.

Anxiety, depression and cognitive vulnerability

I have investigated how cognitive vulnerability (aka, poor attentional control) can enhance the effects of anxiety and depression on performance.  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.

Funded by a number of grants from the Royal Society and the Flemish Research Council together with collaborators at the Univ. of Ghent, we 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, 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 highly cited major theoretical articles have arisen from this investigation.

Causal impact of attentional control in predicting 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.

How cognitive enhancement can reduce emotional vulnerability in Breast Cancer

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 two 1 + 3 ESRC PhD studentships our 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. Our recent publication in Psycho-oncology shows that a course of adaptive dual n-back cognitive training can reduce anxiety and rumination for a longer periods post diagnosis. The results of which were publicised in more than 12 media channels and newspapers.

 

You can learn more about our work and the BRiC centre here.

Improving working memory capacity to protect against anxiety and depression in younger adolescents

Funded by an ESRC PhD studentship, as well as collaborating with the City of London School we are conducting longitudinal research on how cognitive training can reduce emotional vulnerability and protect against the longer term effects of anxiety and depression on under-achievement and adolescent health.

Improving working memory capacity to improve sports performance

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. Our published work shows that it is possible to improve sports performance in the field by enhancing cognitive control with transfer effects on various measures of cognitive control. In a recent breakthrough we show that changes brought about by training are partially explained through changes in neurocognitive function.