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Lifelong learning and the plastic brain

By lw355 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Nov 19, 2014.

When a group of experimental psychologists moved into their new lab space in Cambridge earlier this year, they took a somewhat unconventional approach to refurbishing their tea room: they had the walls tiled with the Café Wall Illusion.

The illusion, so-named after it was spotted on the wall of a Bristol café in the 1970s, is a much-debated geometrical trick of the eye and brain in which perfectly parallel lines of black and white tiles appear wedge-shaped and sloped.

It’s also an excellent demonstration of how the brain interprets the world in a way that moves beyond what the input is from the eye, as one of the experimental psychologists, Professor Zoe Kourtzi, explained. “In interpreting the world around us, our brains are challenged by a plethora of information. The brain is thought to integrate information from multiple sources and solve the puzzle of perception by taking into account not only the signals registered by the sensory organs but also their context in space and time.

“In the Café Wall Illusion, the brain takes into account the surrounding tiles, but it also relies on our previous knowledge acquired through training and experience when interpreting a new situation.”

From the day we are born, neurons in the brain start to make connections that combine what we can see, hear, taste, touch and smell with our experiences and memories. Neuroscientists refer to the brain’s ‘plasticity’ in explaining this ability to restructure and learn new things, continually building on previous patterns of neuronal interactions.

To unravel the mechanisms that underlie how brains learn, Kourtzi’s team is looking at how brains recognise objects in a cluttered scene. “This aspect is vital for successful interactions in our complex environments,” she explained. “It’s how we recognise a face in a crowd or a landmark during navigation.”

Visual perception is also highly trainable. The brain can use previous experience of similar cues to be quicker at identifying the image from the ‘noise’ – the proverbial needle from the haystack.

But although neuroscientists recognise that this type of brain plasticity is fundamental to our ability to cope with continually changing settings at home, school, work and play, little is known about how we can stimulate our brain to enhance this learning process, right across the life span.

“The process of ‘learning to learn’ is at the core of flexible human behaviours,” explained Kourtzi. “It underpins how children acquire literacy and numeracy, and how adults develop work-related skills later in life.”

One of the important determinants her team has discovered is that being able to multi-task is better than being able to memorise.

“The faster learners are those who can attend to multiple things at the same time and recruit areas of the brain that are involved in attention,” she explained. “Those who are slower at learning try to memorise, as we can see from greater activity in the parts of the brain connected with memory.”

“So, in fact, being able to do the sort of multi-tasking required when interacting in busy environments or playing video games – which requires the processing of multiple streams of information – can improve your ability to learn.”

She also finds that age doesn’t matter: “what seems to matter is your strategy in life – so if older people have really good attentive abilities they can learn as fast as younger people.”

This has important implications for an ageing society. In the UK, there are now more people over State Pension age than there are children. The UK’s Office for National Statistics predicts that, by 2020, people over 50 will make up almost a third of the workforce and almost half of the adult population. The average life expectancy for a man in the UK will have risen from 65 years in 1951 to 91 years by 2050. Older age has become an increasingly active phase of people’s lives, one in which re-training and cognitive resilience is increasingly sought after.

Kourtzi and colleagues are using functional magnetic resonance imaging to detect when areas of the brain are activated in response to a sensory input and how these circuits change with learning and experience. While at the University of Birmingham, she showed that the visual recognition abilities of young and older adults can be enhanced by training, but that the different age groups use different neural circuits to do this.

Young adults use anterior brain centres that are often used in perceptual decisions, where sensory information is evaluated for a decision to be made; older adults, by contrast, use the posterior part of the brain, which is in charge of the ability to attend and select a target from irrelevant clutter. “The clear implication of this is that training programmes need to be geared for age,” said Kourtzi.

Crucially, what she also observed is that some people benefit from training more than others: “although it’s well known that practice makes perfect, some people are better at learning and may benefit more from particular interventions than others. But to determine how and why, we need to go beyond biological factors, like cognition or genetics, to look at social factors: what is it about the way a particular individual has learned to approach learning in their social setting that might affect their ability to learn?”

This multidisciplinary approach to understanding learning lies at the heart of her work. She leads the European-Union-funded Adaptive Brain Computations project, which brings together behavioural scientists, computer scientists, pharmacologists and neuroscientists across eight European universities, plus industrial partners, to understand and test how learning happens.

“In our work, there’s a strong element of translating our findings into practical applications, so creating training programmes that are age appropriate is our ultimate goal,” she added.

“The reason we like the Café Wall Illusion so much is because tricks of visual perception tell us that the brain can see things in a different way to the input. How the brain does this is influenced by context, just as the way we interpret our environment is influenced by learning and previous experience.”

Inset image: Café Wall Illusion, Tony Kerr on Flickr

Our brains are plastic. They continually remould neural connections as we learn, experience and adapt. Now researchers are asking if new understanding of these processes can help us train our brains.

In the Café Wall Illusion, the brain takes into account the surrounding tiles, but it also relies on our previous knowledge acquired through training and experience when interpreting a new situation
Zoe Kourtzi
11 Thinking about it

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Yes

Professor Trevor Robbins chairs Symposium at SfN's Neuroscience 2014 meeting

By Diane FitzMaurice from News. Published on Nov 16, 2014.

BNA Christmas Symposium 2014: What drugs could Santa take?

By Diane FitzMaurice from News. Published on Nov 13, 2014.

Dr Denes Szucs interviewed on the Tonight programme

By Diane FitzMaurice from News. Published on Nov 12, 2014.

Cambridge professor and ScienceGrrl celebrate women in science with release of She Blinded Me With Science

By cjb250 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Nov 06, 2014.

Tim Bussey

The song is performed by Violet Transmissions, a band whose lead singer Tim Bussey is also Professor of Behavioural Neuroscience and a Fellow and Director of Studies in Natural Sciences at Pembroke College, University of Cambridge. Its video features a number of young women scientists including a material scientist, laser physicists and an epidemiologist. All proceeds from the song will go to ScienceGrrl, an organisation dedicated to celebrating and supporting women in science.

Thomas Dolby has himself offered his backing, providing samples from his original hit of British scientist and TV presenter Magnus Pyke, including his off-the-cuff remark “Yes, but as a known scientist, it would be surprising if a girl blinded me with science”.

Professor Bussey says: “In my field, neuroscience – and certainly in my lab – many of the best scientists are women, including my wife Lisa Saksida, with whom I run the lab. And as Director of Studies, I consistently find that many of the top candidates for admission at undergraduate level are women. So it’s shocking that most of the faces at my level of career progression are male. Clearly women are being put off science somewhere along the way. We’ve released this cover of Thomas Dolby’s hit as way of celebrating women in science and helping raise awareness of some of the issues they face.”

Through Both Eyes, a recent report from ScienceGrrl, highlighted some of the issues that face women in science and recommended steps that could be taken to address the problem of underrepresentation of women in leadership positions in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Issues include cultural stereotypes which do little to encourage girls to consider a career in STEM subjects and undermine their achievements in the classroom. ScienceGrrl calls on the government and organisations in a position of influence to show leadership in areas of gender equality, careers advice and education.

Dr Anna Zecharia, Director of ScienceGrrl, said: We want everyone to feel empowered to reach their potential. Too often, cultural and social factors mean that girls and women start off on the back foot feeling unsupported and out of place. ScienceGrrl is about showcasing diverse role models, and the different faces of success. We want to show that science and engineering is for everyone and support those who already have a foot in the door. There is still a lot of work to do to bust open stereotypes and break down barriers, but it’s encouraging that researchers like Tim are taking a stand and helping raise the profile – and position – of ScienceGrrls."

Similarly, a report last year by the Wellcome Trust, the UK’s largest charitable funder of medical research, found that a lack of mentoring and career support along with a low number of female role models were cited as key factors that may be driving women in science to move away from academic careers earlier than men.

The University of Cambridge has recently joined a select group of universities with an institutional Athena SWAN Silver Award. The awards are bestowed in recognition of commitment to advancing women's careers in STEM employment in higher education and research.

Professor Anne Davis, Professor of Mathematical Physics and a Gender Equality Champion at the University of Cambridge, said: “The University is keenly aware of the need to retain women as they progress through their careers into senior levels. Back when I got my PhD I suddenly found myself as the most senior women in my subject in the UK.

“The situation is changing, but slowly and there is still a lot more we must do to change the thinking of both men and women, to foster female scientists and ensure those recruiting academics have the right skills. To be a world class University we must recruit and retain the best candidates - from every sector of society.”

The video, together with additional interviews with the ‘science grrls’ can be viewed online at www.sheblindedmewithscience.org.

A Cambridge professor and an army of ScienceGrrls – with a little assistance from the late Magnus Pyke – will be helping celebrate women in science, with the release today on iTunes of a cover version of Thomas Dolby’s 1982 hit She Blinded Me With Science.

It’s shocking that most of the faces at my level of career progression are male. Clearly women are being put off science somewhere along the way
Tim Bussey
Tim Bussey

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Yes

Why do we like poetry? The Why Factor asks Professor Usha Goswami

By Diane FitzMaurice from News. Published on Nov 04, 2014.

Visiting Scholar, Leire Salazar, awarded la Caixa Prize

By Diane FitzMaurice from News. Published on Nov 03, 2014.

Child Psychology: A Very Short Introduction - Professor Usha Goswami's new book

By Diane FitzMaurice from News. Published on Oct 31, 2014.

Performance, Madness and Psychiatry: Isolated Acts - a new collection of essays

By Diane FitzMaurice from News. Published on Oct 30, 2014.

Graduate event on writing and publishing

By Diane FitzMaurice from News. Published on Oct 28, 2014.

Russell Lab publishes findings of landmark study

By Diane FitzMaurice from News. Published on Oct 17, 2014.

One hundred years ago

By Diane FitzMaurice from News. Published on Oct 14, 2014.

Trends in Neurosciences paper focuses on the Brain Prize 2014

By Diane FitzMaurice from News. Published on Oct 14, 2014.

Professor Trevor Robbins's invited lectures and BAP interview, September 2014

By Diane FitzMaurice from News. Published on Oct 06, 2014.

How to tell a missile from a pylon: a tale of two cortices

By cjb250 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Oct 02, 2014.

Now, researchers at the University of Cambridge have identified the two regions of the brain involved in these two tasks – picking out objects from background noise and identifying the specific objects – and have shown why training people to recognise specific objects improves their ability to pick out objects.

In a study funded by the Wellcome Trust, volunteers were given a series of 3D stereoscopic images with varying levels of background noise and asked first to find a target object and then to say whether the object was in the foreground or the background. During the task, researchers applied transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) – a technique whereby a magnetic field is applied to the head – to disrupt the performance of two regions of the brain used in object identification: the parietal cortex and the ventral cortex. Their results are published in the journal Current Biology.

The researchers showed that the parietal cortex was involved in selecting potential targets from background noise, while the ventral cortex was involved in object recognition. When TMS was applied to the parietal cortex, volunteers performed less well at selecting objects from the background; when the field was applied to the ventral cortex, they performed less well at identifying the specific objects.

However, the researchers found that after the volunteers had undergone training to discriminate between specific objects, the ventral cortex – which, until then, had only been used for this purpose – also became involved in selecting targets from noise, enhancing their ability to distinguish between objects. The reverse was not true – in other words, the parietal cortex did not become involved in object discrimination.

Dr Welchman, a Wellcome Trust Senior Research Fellow in the Department of Psychology, explains: “The parietal cortex and the ventral cortex appear to be involved in the overlapping tasks to a different extent. By analogy to the World War II analysts, the parietal cortex helped them spot suspect objects while the ventral cortex helped them distinguish the weapons from the pylons. But training these operatives to identify the weapons will have improved their ability to spot potential weapons in the first place.”

The research may have implications for therapies to help people with attentional difficulties. For example, people with damage to the parietal cortex, such as through stroke, are known to have difficulty in finding objects in displays, particularly when the display is distracting.

“These results show that training in clear displays modifies the brain areas that underlie performance in distracting situations. This suggests a route for rehabilitative training that helps individuals avoid distracting information by training individuals to make fine judgements,” he adds.

During the Second World War, analysts pored over stereoscopic aerial reconnaissance photographs, becoming experts at identifying potential targets from camouflaged or visually noisy backgrounds, and then at distinguishing between V-weapons and innocuous electricity pylons.

Training World War II operatives to identify weapons will have improved their ability to spot potential weapons in the first place
Andrew Welchman
Examining WWII aerial reconnaissance photos

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Yes

Presence or absence of early language delay alters anatomy of the brain in autism

By sc604 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Sep 23, 2014.

A new study led by researchers from the University of Cambridge has found that a common characteristic of autism – language delay in early childhood – leaves a ‘signature’ in the brain. The results are published today (23 September) in the journal Cerebral Cortex.

The researchers studied 80 adult men with autism: 38 who had delayed language onset and 42 who did not. They found that language delay was associated with differences in brain volume in a number of key regions, including the temporal lobe, insula, ventral basal ganglia, which were all smaller in those with language delay; and in brainstem structures, which were larger in those with delayed language onset.

Additionally, they found that current language function is associated with a specific pattern of grey and white matter volume changes in some key brain regions, particularly temporal, frontal and cerebellar structures.

The Cambridge researchers, in collaboration with King’s College London and the University of Oxford, studied participants who were part of the MRC Autism Imaging Multicentre Study (AIMS).

Delayed language onset – defined as when a child’s first meaningful words occur after 24 months of age, or their first phrase occurs after 33 months of age – is seen in a subgroup of children with autism, and is one of the clearest features triggering an assessment for developmental delay in children, including an assessment of autism.

“Although people with autism share many features, they also have a number of key differences,” said Dr Meng-Chuan Lai of the Cambridge Autism Research Centre, and the paper’s lead author. “Language development and ability is one major source of variation within autism. This new study will help us understand the substantial variety within the umbrella category of ‘autism spectrum’. We need to move beyond investigating average differences in individuals with and without autism, and move towards identifying key dimensions of individual differences within the spectrum.”

He added: “This study shows how the brain in men with autism varies based on their early language development and their current language functioning. This suggests there are potentially long-lasting effects of delayed language onset on the brain in autism.”

Last year, the American Psychiatric Association removed Asperger Syndrome (Asperger’s Disorder) as a separate diagnosis from its diagnostic manual (DSM-5), and instead subsumed it within ‘autism spectrum disorder.’ The change was one of many controversial decisions in DSM-5, the main manual for diagnosing psychiatric conditions.

“This new study shows that a key feature of Asperger Syndrome, the absence of language delay, leaves a long lasting neurobiological signature in the brain,” said Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, senior author of the study. “Although we support the view that autism lies on a spectrum, subgroups based on developmental characteristics, such as Asperger Syndrome, warrant further study.”

“It is important to note that we found both differences and shared features in individuals with autism who had or had not experienced language delay,” said Dr Lai. “When asking: ‘Is autism a single spectrum or are there discrete subgroups?’ - the answer may be both.”

This study was supported by the Waterloo Foundation, the UK Medical Research Council (MRC), the Autism Research Trust, the Wellcome Trust, the William Binks Autism Neuroscience Fellowship, and the European Autism Interventions—a Multicentre Study for Developing New Medications (EU-AIMS).

Individual differences in early language development, and in later language functioning, are associated with changes in the anatomy of the brain in autism.

We need to move beyond investigating average differences in individuals with and without autism, and move towards identifying key dimensions of individual differences within the spectrum
Meng-Chuan Lai
Neural Connections In the Human Brain

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Yes

Males and females with autism show an extreme of the typical male mind

By cjb250 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Jul 16, 2014.

Lego ordered into compartments

A team of researchers, led by Professor Simon Baron-Cohen and Dr Meng-Chuan Lai from the Autism Research Centre at the University of Cambridge, tested 811 adults with autism, of whom 454 were female. They compared them to 3,906 typical adults, of whom 2,562 were female. Large samples are needed in order to test for subtle sex differences reliably. This is the first time such a large sample, especially of females with autism, has been studied, since autism is less common in females. The results are published today in the journal PLOS ONE.

All adults took three questionnaires online: the Autism Spectrum Quotient (AQ) that counts the number of autistic traits a person has, the Empathy Quotient (EQ) that measures how easily a person shows social sensitivity to others, and the Systemising Quotient (SQ) that measures how interested a person is in systems (such as maps, machines, numbers, and collecting things).

Results showed clearly that typical females scored higher on the EQ, and typical males scored higher on the AQ and SQ. This sex difference was preserved but significantly reduced in adults with autism, and both males and females showed an extreme of the typical male profile on these measures.

The researchers also analysed the results in terms of ‘brain types’, which look at the difference between an individual’s EQ and SQ. The most common brain type in typical females is Type E, where EQ is higher than SQ. The most common brain type in typical males is Type S, where SQ is higher than EQ. The most common brain type in people with autism – both males and females – were Type S and an extreme of Type S, where EQ is below average whilst SQ is either average or even above average.

Professor Baron-Cohen said: “Our study provides strong evidence in support of the ‘extreme male brain’ theory of autism. Importantly, extreme Type S manifests differently in males and females with autism, but these measures nevertheless reveal its presence. The results also fit with other research showing that children who go on to have autism show elevated prenatal levels steroid hormones (such as testosterone), which affect the development of the brain and the mind.”

Dr Meng-Chuan Lai said: “For decades, the role of sex and gender was relatively under-investigated in autism. Females with autism are now beginning to be studied in their own right. In this new study, typical sex differences were reduced in autism, but not abolished. In addition, females with autism as a group show greater variation on these measures, compared to males with autism. We need more research into the differences between males and females with autism, and how these affect the identification of autism, and what support they need.”

Professor Baron-Cohen added: “These results also have implications for education and employment. People with autism – both males and females – love systems, which are rule-based, precise, and predictable, and find the world of emotions, thoughts, motives and intentions fuzzy and confusing. To achieve their full potential at school, college or at work, information should be presented with exactness, avoiding ambiguity.”

The largest ever psychological study of sex differences in adults with autism has found that both males and females with autism on average show an extreme of the typical male mind, where systemising (the drive to look for underlying rules in a system) is stronger than empathising (the ability to recognize the thoughts and feelings of others and to respond to these with appropriate emotions).

For decades, the role of sex and gender was relatively under-investigated in autism. Females with autism are now beginning to be studied in their own right
Meng-Chuan Lai
Technic Bits (cropped)

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University teaching awards honour excellence

By pbh25 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Jul 01, 2014.

The 21st annual Pilkington Prizes, which honour excellence in teaching across the collegiate University, were held at Downing College last night.

The prizes are awarded annually to academic staff, with candidates nominated by Schools within the University.

The Pilkington Prizes were initiated by Sir Alastair Pilkington, the first Chairman of the Cambridge Foundation, who believed passionately that the quality of teaching was crucial to Cambridge’s success.

This year’s recipients received their awards at a ceremony attended by Vice-Chancellor Professor Sir Leszek Borysiewicz and Lord Watson of Richmond CBE, the University’s High Steward.

The prize-winners, and excerpts from their citations, are given below.

Dr Michael AitkenDr Michael Aitken, Senior Lecturer in Psychology, Department of Psychology: Michael Aitken is a very popular, charismatic and accomplished lecturer who regularly obtains top marks from students in their feedback, even for what are for them lectures on “boring” topics such as statistical theory and practice. He has a rich understanding of undergraduate education and was instrumental in negotiating the new phase of accreditation of the courses in psychology by the British Psychological Society. However, his major abiding achievement has been to establish a new Tripos in this University, in the Psychological and Behavioural Sciences (PBS).

Dr Alastair Beresford, University Lecturer at the Computer Laboratory, Faculty of Computer Science and Technology: Alastair Beresford has revolutionised programming-language teaching for the Computer Science Tripos in the Computer Laboratory over the past six years. His pioneering work, along with fellow Pilkington Prize recipient Dr Andrew Rice, has seen teaching move away from traditional lectures to video and online exercises. The changes are hugely appreciated by the students, who are able to study at their own pace with substantial support from their supervisors. In addition, he has taken on the role of Chair of the Advanced Taught Course Management Committee.

Dr Sally Boss, University Lecturer in Chemistry, Department of Chemistry: Sally Boss is an outstanding teacher of chemistry who has already had a significant impact on several generations of Cambridge chemists. Her lucid and lively introductions to the intricacies of co-ordination chemistry and the mysteries of polyhedral molecular architectures continue to engage and excite the whole class. In addition she is an outstanding supervisor, undertaking a busy load for both her own College and others. Sally has been instrumental in a substantial revision of the first- and second-year practical courses, giving the classes a new vigour and direction.

Professor Richard Fentiman, Professor of Private International Law, Faculty of Law: Richard Fentiman is an exceptional teacher, whose entertaining and invigorating lectures have engaged students for many years. Described by one as making “even the dreariest topic seem exciting”, he is consistently ranked as one of the top-rated lecturers in the Law Faculty. Professor Fentiman has also made a substantial contribution over the years to faculty administration, serving first as director of the LLM and, more recently, as chair of the degree committee. In addition, Professor Fentiman is considered one of the leaders in his field of research.

Dr Rachael Harris, Senior Language Teaching Officer in Arabic, Faculty of Eastern and Middle Eastern Studies: Rachael Harris is, with her close colleague Mrs Nadira Auty, the cornerstone of the Arabic teaching programme in the undergraduate tripos. For the last 26 years at Cambridge she has given heart and soul to the training of our undergraduate students, helping them achieve levels of confident fluency in Arabic recognised as remarkable in the national context. Together they have blazed a trail in the professionalisation of Arabic language teaching. It is difficult to appreciate the difference between what we currently expect our students to excel at and what they were able to do before Rachael and Nadira joined us.

Professor Christopher Howe, Professor of Plant and Microbial Biochemistry, Department of Biochemistry: Christopher is not only an extremely gifted didactic teacher in his own right, regularly garnering plaudits from his undergraduate audiences, but for several years he has also served the department diligently and innovatively as its director of undergraduate teaching. His hard work is marked by several virtues: unbounded enthusiasm, creativity, painstaking preparation and organisation, and the courage to take on, and deal effectively with, often vexing tactical and strategic issues.

Dr Sriya Iyer, Isaac Newton Trust Affiliated Lecturer, Faculty of Economics: Sriya Iyer has been teaching development economics in the Faculty of Economics and St Catharine’s College since 2000. Her approach is to teach development economics passionately and enthusiastically using microeconomic and macroeconomic theory, but to infuse learning with a sense of history and a sound intuition for development policy. Sriya has the ability to explain complex points clearly. Her students value her greatly. As one said: “Dr Iyer is a brilliant lecturer. You get the impression she loves what she teaches and that certainly rubs off in the lectures.”

Dr John Maclennan, University lecturer in Earth Sciences, Department of Earth Sciences: John Maclennan has an enviable breadth of geological knowledge, which students benefit from in all four years of the Earth Sciences degree course. All John's teaching is characterised by a deep understanding of the subject and by a lively and motivating presentation of the material. He is particularly good at conveying that observations and interpretations are there be questioned, and that this scientific process is valuable and fun. John's excellent teaching is not confined to lectures. Students especially comment on his skill at demonstrating practical classes, and in running the fourth year field trip to Spain.

Professor Michael Potter, Professor of Logic in the Faculty of Philosophy: Michael Potter is a dedicated and inspiring teacher of undergraduate and research students. As lecturer and supervisor, Michael has been a major force in the teaching of logic, philosophy of mathematics and history of analytic philosophy in the Faculty for over 15 years. He has been instrumental in establishing a flourishing seminar on the philosophy of mathematics and logic. He has made an outstanding contribution to maintaining and enhancing the quality of supervision and small group teaching that makes the experience of studying at Cambridge excellent and unique.

Dr Sally Quilligan, University Lecturer in Clinical Communication, School of Clinical Medicine: Sally Quilligan is a Lecturer in Clinical Communication in the School of Clinical Medicine and an outstanding medical educator.  Sally is committed, conscientious and enthusiastic, always treating the students with respect, paying attention to their views and helping each student develop their potential as effective clinical communicators. Student feedback regularly includes statements such as “she really cares about what we are saying”, “she takes everything we say seriously”, “her feedback is relevant and helpful” and “she is the best facilitator I have had”.

Dr Andrew Rice, Senior Lecturer at the Computer Laboratory, Faculty of Computer Science and Technology: Andrew Rice is recognised for his pioneering work on programming-language teaching for the Computer Science Tripos. Together with Dr Alastair Beresford, Andy has presided over a major shift in how students have carried out their studies over the past six years. Moving away from traditional lectures, he has ensured students can study at their own pace using video and online exercises. A substantial emphasis on the role of the supervisors ensures the teaching remains within the Cambridge context.

Dr Jeremy Webb, Academic Lead for Staff Development, School of Clinical Medicine: Jeremy Webb successfully combines his clinical career as Principal in a busy General Practice in Newmarket with an important educational role at Cambridge for medical students and educators. He is an invaluable member of the Clinical School’s education team.  A founder member of the Graduate Entry Programme, he brought his passionate belief that medical students should be taught more often by general practitioners into the development of the Cambridge Graduate Course in Medicine (CGC) programme. Jeremy has in particular supported students in difficulty, both with pastoral guidance and remedial clinical teaching.

Twelve inspirational academics honoured for the outstanding quality and approach to their teaching

Vice-Chancellor Professor Sir Leszek Borysiewicz and Lord Watson of Richmond CBE with 2014 Pilkington Teaching Prize winners

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Yes

Children with autism have elevated levels of steroid hormones in the womb

By cjb250 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Jun 03, 2014.

Boy with autism

The team of researchers, led by Professor Simon Baron-Cohen and Dr Michael Lombardo in Cambridge and Professor Bent Nørgaard-Pedersen in Denmark, utilized approximately 19,500 amniotic fluid samples stored in a Danish biobank from individuals born between 1993-1999. Amniotic fluid surrounds the baby in the womb during pregnancy and is collected when some women choose to have an amniocentesis around 15-16 weeks of pregnancy. This coincides with a critical period for early brain development and sexual differentiation, and thus allows scientists access into this important window in fetal development. The researchers identified amniotic fluid samples from 128 males later diagnosed with an autism spectrum condition and matched these up with information from a central register of all psychiatric diagnoses in Denmark.

Within the amniotic fluid the researchers looked at four key ‘sex steroid’ hormones that are each synthesized, step-by-step from the preceding one*. They also tested the steroid hormone cortisol that lies outside this pathway. The researchers found that levels of all steroid hormones were highly associated with each other and most importantly, that the autism group on average had higher levels of all steroid hormones, compared to a typically developing male comparison group. The results of the study, which was funded by the Medical Research Council, are published today in the journal Molecular Psychiatry.

Professor Baron-Cohen said: “This is one of the earliest non-genetic biomarkers that has been identified in children who go on to develop autism. We previously knew that elevated prenatal testosterone is associated with slower social and language development, better attention to detail, and more autistic traits. Now, for the first time, we have also shown that these steroid hormones are elevated in children clinically diagnosed with autism. Because some of these hormones are produced in much higher quantities in males than in females, this may help us explain why autism is more common in males.”

He added: “These new results are particularly striking because they are found across all the subgroups on the autism spectrum, for the first time uniting those with Asperger Syndrome, classic autism, or Pervasive Developmental Disorder Not-Otherwise-Specified. We now want to test if the same finding is found in females with autism.”

Dr Michael Lombardo said: “This result potentially has very important implications about the early biological mechanisms that alter brain development in autism and also pinpoints an important window in fetal development when such mechanisms exert their effects.”

Steroid hormones are particularly important because they exert influence on the process of how instructions in the genetic code are translated into building proteins. The researchers believe that altering this process during periods when the building blocks for the brain are being laid down may be particularly important in explaining how genetic risk factors for autism get expressed.

Dr Lombardo adds: “Our discovery here meshes nicely with other recent findings that highlight the prenatal period around 15 weeks gestation as a key period when important genetic risk mechanisms for autism are working together to be expressed in the developing brain.”

Professor Baron-Cohen said: “These results should not be taken as a reason to jump to steroid hormone blockers as a treatment as this could have unwanted side effects and may have little to no effect in changing the potentially permanent effects that fetal steroid hormones exert during the early foundational stages of brain development.”

He cautioned further: “Nor should these results be taken as a promising prenatal screening test. There is considerable overlap between the groups and our findings showed differences found at an average group level, rather than at the level of accurately predicting diagnosis for individuals. The value of the new results lies in identifying key biological mechanisms during fetal development that could play important roles in atypical brain development in autism.”

*Within the amniotic fluid the researchers looked at 4 key ‘sex steroid’ hormones that are each synthesized, step-by-step from the preceding one, in the ‘Δ4 sex steroid’ pathway: progesterone, 17α-hydroxy-progesterone, androstenedione and testosterone.

Children who later develop autism are exposed to elevated levels of steroid hormones (for example testosterone, progesterone and cortisol) in the womb, according to scientists from the University of Cambridge and the Statens Serum Institute in Copenhagen, Denmark. The finding may help explain why autism is more common in males than females. However, the researchers caution it should not be used to screen for the condition.

This is one of the earliest non-genetic biomarkers that has been identified in children who go on to develop autism
Simon Baron-Cohen
I Think... therefore I am more than a diagnosis. (Cropped image)

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Scientists identify part of brain linked to gambling addiction

By jfp40 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Apr 08, 2014.

The research, led by Dr Luke Clark from the University of Cambridge, was published on April 7 2014 in the journal PNAS.

During gambling games, people often misperceive their chances of winning due to a number of errors of thinking called cognitive distortions. For example, ‘near-misses’ seem to encourage further play, even though they are no different from any other loss. In a random sequence like tossing a coin, a run of one event (heads) makes people think the other outcome (tails) is due next; this is known as the ‘gambler’s fallacy’.

There is increasing evidence that problem gamblers are particularly prone to these erroneous beliefs. In this study, the researchers examined the neurological basis of these beliefs in patients with injuries to different parts of the brain.

“While neuroimaging studies can tell us a great deal about the brain’s response to complex events, it’s only by studying patients with brain injury that we can see if a brain region is actually needed to perform a given task,” said Dr Clark.

For the study, the researchers gave patients with injuries to specific parts of the brain (the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, the amygdala, or the insula) two different gambling tasks: a slot machine game that delivered wins and ‘near-misses’ (like a cherry one position from the jackpot line), and a roulette game involving red or black predictions, to elicit the gambler’s fallacy. For the control groups, they also had patients with injuries to other parts of the brain as well as healthy participants undergo the gambling tasks.

All of the groups with the exception of the patients with insula damage reported a heightened motivation to play following near-misses in the slot machine game, and also fell prey to the gambler’s fallacy in the roulette game.

Clark added: “Based on these results, we believe that the insula could be hyperactive in problem gamblers, making them more susceptible to these errors of thinking. Future treatments for gambling addiction could seek to reduce this hyperactivity, either by drugs or by psychological techniques like mindfulness therapies.”

Gambling is a widespread activity: 73% of people in the UK report some gambling involvement in the past year* and around 50% play games other than the National Lottery. For a small proportion of players (around 1-5%), their gambling becomes excessive, resulting in features seen in addiction. Problem gambling is associated with both debt and family difficulties as well as other mental health problems like depression.

*2010 British Gambling Prevalence Survey

New research reveals that brain damage affecting the insula – an area with a key role in emotions – disrupts errors of thinking linked to gambling addiction.

Based on these results, we believe that the insula could be hyperactive in problem gamblers, making them more susceptible to errors of thinking.
Dr Luke Clark
Kings Down

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Yes

New study reveals scale of problem gambling among homeless population

By jfp40 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Apr 02, 2014.

The study – one of the largest surveys of gambling and homelessness ever undertaken in the UK – provides new insight into a rarely studied problem and suggests homeless services should offer clients more support to identify and tackle problem gambling.

Although homelessness and problem gambling are two public health concerns, they are rarely considered together. This new study – published in the Journal of Gambling Studies – interviewed 450 people at homeless hostels and shelters in the London Borough of Westminster.

According to lead author Steve Sharman from the Department of Psychology: “Many issues face the homeless population, including drug and alcohol use. In terms of addiction research, most focus has been on drugs, alcohol and smoking, but the gambling field is relatively small in comparison. And while it is possible to spot physiological indicators of drug and alcohol addiction, problem gambling is much harder to identify.”

Finding out more about gambling addiction is important at a time when gambling opportunities are wider than ever. “Gambling has exploded in popularity over the past 20 years, partly due to changes in legislation but also because of new technology,” said Sharman.

“Where previous generations were limited to betting shops and football pools, today there’s everything from online slots to in-play betting. That means people can gamble 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and the more people who gamble, the more people there will be who do so problematically.”

Together with researchers at Kings College London, the National Problem Gambling Clinic, The Connection @ St Martins and other centres in Westminster, Sharman spoke to over 450 homeless people in London.

He assessed levels of problem gambling using a standard clinical diagnostic tool called the Problem Gambling Severity Index. He then compared the results with data from the British Gambling Prevalence Survey.

Compared with the UK population as a whole, where problem gambling affects 0.7% of people, the level of problem gambling among homeless people was 11.6%. “We found that the rate of problem or pathological gambling is significantly higher in the homeless population than the general population,” he said.

In identifying the significant scale of the problem, the study could pave the way to developing new services for the homeless.

“The results are useful because some homeless services don’t ask about gambling in their initial assessments. By showing that this population is vulnerable to gambling addiction, the study should encourage homeless services to include questions about gambling in their assessments. If they can understand the full range of behavioural problems their clients face – not only substance abuse – then they will be able to provide more comprehensive services,” said Sharman.

The next stage of the project will be to unpick the direction of the link between gambling and homelessness – whether gambling is a cause or consequence of homelessness – the links between gambling and alcohol and drug use, and look at so-called negative life events.

“By giving us an indication of life events that precede homelessness and came afterwards, we will get a better understanding of the causes, and whether people start gambling after becoming homeless or became homeless as a result of gambling,” he said.

“Regardless of whether gambling is a cause or a consequence, recognising and addressing this problem will hopefully give affected individuals a better chance of getting off – and more importantly staying off – the streets.”

Homeless people are ten times more likely to be problem gamblers than the UK population as a whole, researchers at Cambridge have found.

Recognising and addressing this problem will hopefully give affected individuals a better chance of getting off – and more importantly staying off – the streets
Steve Sharman
On the street

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Yes

Male Eurasian jays know that their female partners’ desires can differ from their own

By jfp40 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Mar 26, 2014.

Knowing what another person wants is not a trivial issue, particularly when the other’s desires are different from our own. The ability to disengage from our own desire to cater to someone else’s wishes is thought to be a unique feature of human cognition.

New research challenges this assumption. Despite wanting something different to eat, male Eurasian jays can disengage from their own current desire in order to feed the female what she wants even when her desires are different to his. The study, which was funded by the BBSRC, is published today in the Royal Society journal Biology Letters.

“We found that males could respond to the female’s desire even when their own desire was conflicting. That said, the males were also partially biased by what they wanted – a bias similar to one commonly found in human children and adults,” said Dr Ljerka Ostojić, who led the University of Cambridge study.

For the study, nine male-female pairs of Eurasian jays (a member of the Corvid family) from two colonies were tested during the breeding season – the only time when jays share food. To manipulate what food the males and the females desired, the researchers used a phenomenon termed ‘specific satiety’ – after eating a particular food item to satiety, jays prefer to eat a novel food item that they are not currently sated on.

Once a day the females and males were placed in adjacent compartments with a mesh window in between. The male was then pre-fed either wax moth larvae or mealworm beetle larvae – both favourite treats for jays - until he did not want more. At the same time, the female’s desire was manipulated by giving her the same food as the male (meaning that their desires were matching), a different food from the male (meaning that their desires were conflicting), or her usual diet (meaning that the female’s desire was neutral towards the two types of larvae).

During the pre-feeding, the male had visual access to the female and saw her eat. At the end of pre-feeding, all food was removed. The males were then given 20 choices between a single wax moth larva and a mealworm beetle larva which they could either eat, cache (hide for later) or give to the female.

Not surprisingly, when the male and female birds’ preferences were the same, the male fed the female the food desired by both. However, when the female’s desire differed from the male’s, then he took his partner’s wishes into account, often feeding her the food that she desired. This ability to ascribe to another individual an internal life like one’s own and at the same time understand that the other’s internal, psychological states might differ from one’s own is called state-attribution.

Professor Nicky Clayton, whose Comparative Cognition lab at Cambridge University’s Department of Psychology conducted the study, said: “As humans, we ‘put ourselves into someone else’s shoes’ in order to respond to what the other person wants. Although we are biased by our own current desires, we can inhibit these to put the wants and desires of another before our own. The current findings show that the jays can also do this. So what this research suggests is that a common mechanism might underlie ‘desire-state attribution’ in humans and jays.”

New research shows that male jays are able to disengage from their own current desires to feed their female partner food that she wants.

We found that males could respond to the female’s desire even when their own desire was conflicting.
Dr Ljerka Ostojić
Male Eurasian jay

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Yes