Birkbeck’s BabyLab: Investigating neural underpinnings of the social brain

Anna Kolesnik, PhD candidate in Birkbeck’s Centre for Brain and Cognitive Development (CBCD) discusses the research in motion at the BabyLab, and why we’re crowdfunding to extend this research to toddlers.

How do babies become experts at processing the social world? Can we identify early neural correlates of this specialisation?

Previous investigations carried out at the BabyLab have explored rhythmic activity in the brain in response to social stimuli, finding evidence for early specialisation to faces and gaze as early as 4 months of age. Throughout the second half of the first year, we have seen evidence for increased perceptual narrowing in several aspects of cognition, allowing more efficient processing of incoming information. We also know that by age 2-3 years, toddlers become experts at navigating the social world and tune their attention to relevant information sources. This is also the time where first behavioural symptoms of neurodevelopmental disorders such as Autism emerge. Majority of our current understanding comes from cross-sectional research, which captures a ‘snap-shot’ in development. Here at the BabyLab, we want to study the early years continuously, which will increase our ability to identify and propose intervention strategies for infants at risk.  

GAmma and Brain-Based LanguagE Specialization study (GABBLES)
As part of my PhD project, I am running a longitudinal study with typically developing infants which aims to understand the neural basis of auditory and intercessory processing in the first year of life by examining changes in rhythmic neural activity in the brain. Using the predictions set out by Professor Mark Johnson’s ‘Interactive Specialisation’ framework, one of the leading theories of development in the field, we hope to isolate the fundamental sensory processes which precede the infants’ first words

Families with 5-month-old infants were recruited to take part in the study at the BabyLab in the Centre for Brain and Cognitive Development, with additional visits at 10 and 14 months. Fourteen babies form a subgroup of bilinguals, as they are exposed to a language other than English for a significant time. The testing protocol included tasks to evoke oscillatory activity in auditory and visual areas of the brain (which we record from passive sensors placed on the baby’s head). They also completed an eye-tracking session, which measured several aspects of pre-verbal language development and comprehension– including word recognition, language preference, and syllable matching tasks. These were accompanied by a standardised assessment of the infant’s cognitive and motor abilities. After the three visits were complete, parents were asked to complete questionnaires on their child’s behaviour, language and sleep until their children turn 2 years. Currently, data collection is almost complete and our lovely participants are entering toddlerhood.

Future directions
At present time, we are only able to collect parent-report questionnaires about language and social abilities of their toddlers. In some ways, this is useful as we can capture some individual differences in development on a behavioural level (i.e. language experience and vocabulary), and then go back and look at possible biomarkers (activation to a native vowel or attention to native/non-native speakers). Being able to follow up these children using wireless technology once they are verbal and actively engaging with the outside world would provide enormously rich insight into how our early brain specialisation affects later functional development. Further, we may be able to identify critical periods of maturation and change in order to generate the most effective interventions and improve outcomes in children with autism.

We are aiming to secure £30,000 in donations for the equipment for the new ToddlerLab. If you are interested in donating and contributing to the centre’s crucial research into children’s development, please see our crowdfunding campaign page.

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Physical fitness linked to lower cognitive impairment in dementia

Dr Eddy Davelaar from the Department of Psychological Sciences discusses the importance of physical fitness in offsetting cognitive impairment in adults with dementia.

 

Dementia and cognitive impairment cost the UK economy approximately £26 billion per year. The number of people with dementia in England and Wales has been projected to increase by 57% from 2016 to 2040, primarily because of extended life expectancy. Finding ways to slow its severity and progression could have life-changing effects for the 800,000 people estimated to be living with dementia in the UK.

With the increased incidence in dementia, people are interested to know whether it could be prevented through changes in their lifestyle, such as eating habits, exercise, and decreased environmental stress. Research does suggest that a healthy lifestyle lowers the risk of dementia. We were interested in physical fitness as one of the lifestyle factors. In our recent article published in Frontiers in Public Health, we asked the question of whether self-reported physical fitness is associated with cognitive, or thinking ability in people with dementia.

To assess this, we used a cross-sectional design with two groups. The first group was made up of 30 older individuals (aged 65+ years) with dementia, who were attending the Alzheimer’s café social events. Those people in the dementia group have lower cognitive performance than the 40 age-matched participants from our control group, who do not have dementia.

We tested everyone on a wide range of cognitive tests, such as verbal fluency, prospective memory, and clock drawing. We also administered a 15-item questionnaire on physical fitness, which asked about strength (eg. ability to lift things), balance, and aerobic conditioning (eg. taking a brisk walk or taking the stairs instead of lifts). Many studies have shown strong correlations between self-report and objective measures of physical fitness. In addition, this questionnaire is available to everyone for self-assessment.

Our findings showed that in the group of dementia patients, those with greater physical fitness also had a greater general cognitive ability. Even those patients with the best cognitive performance still performed worse than the healthy individuals, who did not show this link between physical and cognitive fitness. Thus, physical fitness seems to buffer dementia-related cognitive deterioration.

We ran a number of checks on the results and found that the association did not change when we controlled for the age of the participants, the number of years since dementia diagnosis, the type of dementia, or even whether the person used to be physically active when they were younger. The latter finding suggests that the current state of being physically fit and capable is key to observing this cognitive benefit.

There are at least two explanations for these findings. First, the cardiovascular hypothesis states that physical activity stimulates blood circulation in frontal-striatal circuits (neural pathways that connect frontal lobe regions with the basal ganglia that mediate motor, cognitive, and behavioural functions within the brain), that are critical in executive functioning, such as planning and reasoning.

A second hypothesis suggests that physical fitness measures, such as strength and balance, require efficient brain representations of motor plans. The processes by which these motor representations become more efficient also leads to enhanced cognitive representations. Both hypotheses underscore the expression, ‘what is good for the heart is good for the brain’.

We are currently in the process of addressing the question of whether physical fitness (using both self-report and objective measures) is associated with cognitive decline or cognitive impairment in the absence of dementia. This would assess whether greater physical fitness is associated with greater mental fitness in general, or with cognitive fitness specific in the context of dementia.

Future research could also extend this work using longitudinal study designs in order to address the question of whether a change in physical fitness is associated with a change in the risk of dementia, which has important implications for health policy and age-appropriate physical intervention programmes for both healthy individuals and dementia patients.

Read the original, peer-reviewed article: Increased Physical Fitness Is Associated with Higher Executive Functioning in People with Dementia (2017).

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Eating Disorders in Type 1 Diabetes

Jacqueline Allan, PhD candidate and Associate Lecturer in Psychology, at Birkbeck discusses the little known but extremely dangerous prevalence of eating disorders in Type 1 Diabetics, and her charity Diabetics with Eating Disorders.

In 2014 I was lucky enough to be granted a Bloomsbury scholarship to undertake a PhD focussing on Eating Disorders in Type 1 Diabetes, including one known as ‘Diabulimia’, at Birkbeck. I’ve worked in this area since 2009 when I founded the registered charity Diabetics with Eating Disorders.

First, let me explain what Type 1 Diabetes is.

Type 1 Diabetes is an autoimmune disorder where the insulin-producing beta cells of the pancreas are mistakenly destroyed, making sugar in the body impossible to process. Insulin is one of the most vital hormones in the body – it ferries energy we consume in the form of carbohydrates to our muscles, organs and brain, so it is essential for every bodily function. For this reason, those with Type 1 must check their blood sugar every few hours and administer synthetic insulin to keep themselves safe. There are two main ways for administering insulin – Multiple Daily Injections using both long acting and short acting insulin, or Subcutaneous Infusion using an insulin pump.

Most of us utilise a carbohydrate-counting approach, whereby we know how many insulin units we need for every 10 grams of carbohydrate consumed and what our general background levels should be. If it sounds like a simple equation, it’s not.  Everything affects blood sugar – not just the obvious stuff like sports, illness or alcohol but stress, the weather, sleep, menstruation – its educated guesswork.

When it goes wrong, we are in immediate danger of death. Too much insulin and we can’t think as there is not enough fuel in the cells of the body. We shake, seize, our bodies have a fight or flight reaction and if not treated with sugar in a timely manner we risk falling into a coma and/or dying. Too little insulin and the body has to find other ways to get rid of sugar and provide energy for itself; sugar escapes into the bloodstream and is excreted in the urine while the body starts burning fat and muscle for fuel. The calories consumed can’t be processed and are not utilised, so the body is forced to cannibalise itself for energy. This process is called Diabetic Ketoacidosis – it is a life-threatening condition and the main symptom is massive weight loss. In this sense, we are borne into a world where everything is about food, injections, the looming threat of complications, hospitals and numbers with the knowledge that ignoring it all results in a substantial reduction in body size.

For decades, research has shown that those with Type 1 Diabetes have higher levels of eating disorders that their non-Diabetic counterparts. Anorexia, Bulimia and eating disorders not otherwise specified (EDNOS) are twice as prevalent, and insulin omission is present in around 40% of female patients. The statistics for men are not as clear but levels have been rising steadily since the early 90s.

My research looks at risk factors for the development of Eating Disorders in Type 1 Diabetes. I started my PhD in 2014 and found that there is a psychological vulnerability which, when combined with Diabetes-specific distress predicts higher eating disorder symptomology and higher levels of blood sugar. Having modelled these risks, I developed a multidisciplinary intervention delivered online to address them. I am in the process of writing them up at the moment, but initial results are positive.

I am also looking at another important question – are we measuring the right thing? One common feature of standard eating disorder questionnaires is that they ask questions which could directly relate to diabetes regimen, rather than eating disorder symptomology – for example, questions like ‘do you avoid specific food groups?’ Many Type 1 Diabetics deliberately avoid carbohydrates in order to control blood sugar as a lifestyle choice rather than an eating disorder. Similarly, many people investigate this population by asking these standard questions that are fundamentally flawed, without acknowledging the issue that insulin omission leads to weight loss.

We have made substantial inroads into treating Eating Disorders in Type 1 Diabetes and it has been a privilege to be involved centrally with that research. The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) guidelines published earlier this year marked a watershed in recognising the issue, as did the documentary and radio piece with the BBC. There are now two NHS Trust programmes that deal with diabulimia which is more than when I founded the charity in 2009. We still have a long way to go.

The next big hurdle is recognising that Eating Disorders in Type 1 Diabetes is fundamentally different due to the nature of the illness itself and that insulin omission and diabulimia are unique. Hopefully, my research will help with that.

Watch: Diabulimia: The World’s Most Dangerous Eating Disorder

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What will it take to stop extreme climate change?

Birkbeck graduate Leo Barasi discusses his new book, The Climate Majority: apathy and action in an age of nationalism, which confronts the reality of climate change and the need for ordinary people to take action. 

You could look at the news and think climate disaster is now inevitable. Each of the last three years has, one by one, been the hottest on record. A consequence of that was visible with Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, which were made more destructive by oceans that had been warmed by human emissions. All of this has happened with the world only having warmed by perhaps a third of what it will this century if emissions don’t fall.

But you could also look around and think the world is finally dealing with climate change. For the first time, global emissions have stopped increasing, not because of a recession, but because of efforts to deal with the threat. Nearly every country has committed to limit their emissions, in an agreement that anticipates national commitments will strengthen over time.

Both views are right. Climate change is now here and is killing people. And the world is dealing with it more seriously than ever before. But which path will win out? Will the world eliminate emissions within a generation as it should if it is to prevent dangerous warming? Or will its efforts falter, emissions continue at their current rate (or even increase), and the planet respond with increasingly ferocious storms, heatwaves and droughts?

My book, The Climate Majority: apathy and action in an age of nationalism, looks at one of the factors that could make the difference – and how those of us who are worried about climate change could swing the balance.

While the world has done better than many predicted in halting the increase in emissions, its progress has depended on changes that have imposed little burden on most people. The most important of these has been the closure of coal power plants, and cancellation of new plants, which are increasingly being replaced by lower-carbon sources like gas and renewables.

But eventually, the world will exhaust relatively painless changes like this. At some point, the only remaining emissions cuts – which will be crucial for avoiding dangerous warming – will be from activities that directly affect many people in their day-to-day lives.

Two of the most challenging of these are flying and meat-eating. The world is going to have to radically cut emissions from both – but in the two areas, emissions look set to increase. Without action, either could effectively make it impossible for the world to prevent dangerous warming.

Achieving these harder, but essential, emission cuts won’t be possible without public support. Yet, at the moment, that support wouldn’t be forthcoming. It’s not that many people deny climate change: no more than 20% do, even in the US. The more important problem is that many people, perhaps half the population, understand that climate change is real and a threat, but just don’t think about it very much and don’t understand why they would need to change their lives to deal with it. Without their support, crucial emission-cutting measures will fail.

My book looks at the people who are apathetic about climate change and investigates why they think what they do. It explores how human psychology and the ways climate change is often described have made the problem seem distant, unthreatening, and a special interest of left-wing liberals.

And the book looks at what we can do to overcome apathy. There’s no magic word that will make the world act on climate change, but there are ways we can persuade those who are apathetic that it is worth making the effort to deal with the threat. It’s still possible to tip the balance away from disaster.

The Climate Majority: Apathy and Action in an Age of Nationalism by Leo Barasi is published by New Internationalist on 21 September

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