Experiment

Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience Research Group

A multidisciplinary and collaborative team

Understanding the mechanisms underlying cognitive and emotional behaviour and the disruption of these processes by drugs, ageing, atypical development or disease.

The Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience Research Group comprises academics, post-docs and postgraduates with research backgrounds in cognitive psychology, psychophysiology, psychopharmacology and neuroscience.

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This video shows a microneurography experiment with Francis McGlone; the electrodes are recording from within the lateral cutaneous nerve of the forearm while the participant is awake, comfortable and fully responsive. The activity of a single hair unit can be seen and heard in response to the brush strokes delivered by a Robotic Tactile Stimulator (RTS). The group has the only active microneurography lab in the UK. They use this unique technique to investigate the peripheral nerve activity behind social touch and pain and its relationship to conscious perceptual experience.

Expertise

We share a common interest in understanding the mechanisms underlying cognitive and emotional behaviour and the disruption of these processes by drugs, ageing, atypical development or disease. Our experimental approach combines neuroimaging, electrophysiology (EEG and microneurography), pharmacological and physiological techniques with behavioural testing procedures, thus encompassing multiple levels of analysis.

Collaborations

We collaborate with researchers across LJMU from pharmacy, computing, sports science and public health on multidisciplinary projects with an applied focus. In addition, we have strong collaborative links, both nationally and internationally, with other universities, charities and industrial partners.

Our research is funded by:

  • The European Union
  • The Leverhulme Trust
  • Medical Research Council
  • Pain Relief Foundation
  • BIAL Foundation
  • Mersey Care NHS Trust
  • GlaxoSmithKline
  • Unilever

Teaching and learning

All staff in the group contribute to teaching modules on the BSc (Hons) Applied Psychology programme (cognitive neuroscience, appetitive behaviour, social cognition and substance use modules) and some to the BSc (Hons) Animal Behaviour or Health Psychology (MSc) programme.

Facilities

Our research is conducted within modern laboratories housed within the Tom Reilly Building.  We have a specialist laboratory equipped for somatosensory psychophysics with a Medoc Pathway Pain & Thermal Sensory Evaluation System. We are also one of the first laboratories in the UK to have a microneurography capability. Our psychophysiology laboratories house a Faraday Cage, along with 128, 64 and 32 channel EEG systems. In addition, we have fNIRS, EMG, ECG capabilities.

Group members have a long-term association with the Sir Peter Mansfield Magnetic Resonance Centre, University of Nottingham (which houses an ultra-high-field 7T fMRI) as well as the Magnetic Resonance and Image Analysis Research Centre (MARIARC) at the University of Liverpool.

Find out more about our facilities

People

Meet the researchers within this group:


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PhD students

Andrea Piovesan

Thesis title:
Can mindfulness meditation reduce the perceived duration of pain?

Supervisory team:
Dr Ruth Ogden, Dr Laura Mirams and Dr Helen Poole

Funding/collaborators:
LJMU PhD Scholarship

Summary of PhD:
Pain appears to lengthen the perceived duration of events. Previous work from our laboratory has firstly showed this pain effect on time estimation (Ogden et al. 2014). This effect has subsequently been replicated in other laboratories using electro-cutaneous stimulation (Fayolle, Gil & Droit-Volet, 2015) and thermal cooling (Khoshnejad et al., 2016).

Thinking about chronic pain patients, these results would suggest an important insight. Indeed, they do not only experience pain for the majority of the time, but they would also feel this time to be longer than it actually is. It is reasonable to think that this is one of the factors causing and increasing the emotional distress experienced by chronic pain patients reducing their quality of life. However, at present, time perception dysfunction in the chronic pain population is not well investigated. My PhD project aims to address this research gap.

During the first part of my PhD I have conducted a series of behavioural experiments to further investigate the effect of pain on time estimation in a healthy population. Particularly, I have investigated the role of arousal and attention, which notoriously have an effect on the perception of time (Gibbon, Church & Meck, 1984). I have also used physiological measures to assess the arousal level of participants.

During the second part of my PhD I am recruiting patients suffering from chronic pain to compare their time experience to healthy controls. This comparison aims to test whether the chronic pain population has a general distorted time perception, or only in specific sensory modalities. Finally, I will test whether mindfulness training may correct the time distortion of chronic pain patients, with the final aim of reducing their distress and improving their quality of life.

Future plans:
My short term plan is to find a post-doctoral position in my research field after the end of my PhD. My long term plan is to remain in the UK, finding a lecturer position to carry on my academic career.

Connor Haggarty

Thesis title:
The skin as an antisocial organ: Emotional touch processing in Autism Spectrum Disorders

Supervisory team:
Dr. Susannah Walker, Dr. David Moore, Prof. Francis McGlone

Funding/collaborators:
LJMU PhD studentship

Summary of PhD:
Across the lifespan social tactile interactions have been shown to benefit an individual’s physical health and psychological well-being. There are two different types of touch signalled by different nerves in the skin. The first allows us to distinguish between objects we come into contact with and to localise touch on the skin. These are signalled by relatively large diameter fast-conducting nerves. The second type of touch is the emotional information about sensation; these are conveyed by small diameter slow-conducting nerves. Typically these ‘C-type’ nerves are associated with signalling the emotional qualities of pain and itch. However, it is a recently discovered subtype of these C-type nerves that I’m most interested in.

The C-Tactile afferents or CTs are very picky about the type of touch they respond to. Touch must be slow moving not static, it must be gentle not forceful and the temperature of the touch should be around 30 degrees. We know this because direct measurement from these nerves show their activation is directly tied to these criteria. These criteria suggest that CTs have evolved to signal the rewarding value of social tactile interactions like a gentle caress.

This is important because touch is a key regulator of our emotional arousal and plays an integral role in our early social development. So what would happen if we didn't receive comfort or reprieve from negative emotional situations? Imagine if the typically pleasant sensations that we perceive during CT activation were unpleasant. What consequences would this have on a developing infant?

Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) is a prolific developmental condition, characterised by social deficits and abnormality in sensory experiences. Early evidence suggests that there are neurological differences between the healthy and autistic brain. The aim of my research is to discover how individuals with ASD process CT-optimal touch. Using brain imaging methods and physiological techniques, I aim to measure the differences between autistic and healthy individuals during CT-activating touch.

Our research to date suggests that individuals with ASD do not find CT-optimal touch more preferable than non-CT-optimal speeds of touch. This could mean that the pleasant and socially rewarding aspects of CT-optimal touch are not experienced with individuals with ASD. In my current research projects I am 1) Measuring whether children with ASD show a preference for CT-optimal touch as healthy peers do and 2) Measuring physiological responses to CT-optimal and non-CT-optimal touch in adults with ASD compared to healthy controls.

Future plans:
Upon completing my PhD I plan to continue working as an RA or postdoc locally for a short period before moving onto a different university. In the long term I would like to gain experience in different areas of social neuroscience and incorporate more neuroscience methods into my research. This will help me to decide on a specific career route and area of interest for my future research projects.

Deborah Talamonti

Thesis title:
Episodic memory in older adults

Supervisory team:
Dr. Davide Bruno, Dr. Ruth Ogden, Dr. Mark Forshaw, Dr. Dan Clark

Funding/collaborators:
3-year fully Faculty-funded PhD studentship with fees paid for by the School of Natural Sciences and Psychology Faculty bursary

Summary of PhD:
Dementia has been estimated to affect almost 47 million people worldwide, a figure that should increase to 131 million by 2050. To date, no therapy has been shown clinically to cure this condition. Nevertheless, dementia onset and progression can be delayed through neuropsychological and pharmacological interventions, which are more successful when started early.

My PhD project aims to identify early markers of dementia by studying how older adults remember. The first two studies will focus specifically on the cognitive and neuronal substrates of temporal information in the memory of healthy older adults and in individuals with Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI); MCI is the first stage of cognitive decline. I will also use neuroimaging (fNIRS) to explore how attentional and memory processes shape the acquisition, consolidation and retrieval of episodic memory. This work will contribute to the development of a new method for early detection of cognitive decline.

Completed study: TEMPORAL INFORMATION IN MILD COGNITIVE IMPAIRMENT
Items learned at the beginning (primacy) of a list are usually remembered better than items in the middle. Older adults with cognitive impairment present a primacy deficit. We posit that by examining the order in which items are recalled, it is possible to understand the nature of this memory deficit. Bruno et al. (2016) showed that healthy elders tend to recall words by preserving the temporal order of the study list. Our aim was to determine whether individuals with Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI) showed poorer usage of the temporal order information compared to healthy peers; and whether usage rate was associated with general and specific cognitive abilities in both groups. The ANOVA and regression analyses have shown that individuals with MCI employ temporal information less than controls, and that their lower usage is linked with poorer speed and flexibility functioning. These findings suggest that executive functions may play a decisive role in the acquisition and retrieval of temporal information in MCI.

References: Bruno, D., Grothe, M. J., Nierenberg, J., Sidtis, J. J., Teipel, S. J., & Pomara, N. (2016). Output order and variability in free recall are linked to cognitive ability and hippocampal volume in elderly individuals. Neuropsychologia, 80, 126-132.

Future plans:
I intend to undertake an academic career as lecturer, as well as researcher in the memory field. My ultimate goal is to find an effective therapy to improve cognitive functioning in older adults with dementia. Therefore, my next step after achieving the PhD will be to do a postdoc regarding neurostimulation techniques as a potential treatment of memory loss.

Jamie Tully

Thesis title:
Cognitive Enhancement Strategies: Prevalence and psychophysiological response

Supervisory team:
Director of Studies: Dr Catharine Montgomery, Second Supervisor: Professor Harry Sumnall, Third Supervisor: Dr Larissa Maier

Summary of PhD:
My programme of research has been developed to investigate substances that have previously been purported to enhance aspects of cognitive function and mood. These drugs, numerous in type and function, have at one time or another been reported to be beneficial to certain indices of cognition, such as: executive function, learning, attention and mood improvement. Broadly speaking, cognitive enhancement drugs are divided into two categories: soft enhancers, drugs that are characterised by the subtlety of their enhancing effects – i.e., herbal supplements and products containing caffeine – and pharmacological enhancers, substances that act more directly on the central nervous system and neurotransmission – i.e., controlled and synthetic drugs.

Study 1 of this programme took the shape of an investigative survey, and launched an online questionnaire across four UK universities to explore the prevalence of perceived cognitive enhancement (PCE) drugs. Intent, predictors and factors associated with use were also investigated, and early analysis indicated that both soft and pharmacological enhancers were used with the intent to improve cognitive function and to act as study aids. Unsurprisingly, soft enhancers were used considerably more (41%) than their pharmacological counterparts (3%), with caffeinated products being the most widely reported (30%). Of interest to this programme, however, and corroborated by research across the UK, was the use of modafinil, a wake promoting novel stimulant which was the most prevalent pharmacological enhancer (2.2%) reported. This is particularly interesting because the mechanisms of action of this drug are still relatively unknown, as are its long-term cognitive, neurological and physiological effects. As a result, stages 2 and 3 of this programme were informed by the lack of knowledge surrounding this substance specifically.

Study 2, currently in the process of data collection, is investigating cognitive function and haemodynamic response by using functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) neuroimaging technology to elucidate the long-term impact of modafinil on homeostasis in the prefrontal cortex.

Study 3 will extend this investigation to examine aspects of physiological functioning in long-term users by assessing heartrate variability, pre-ejection period and blood pressure when participants complete a digitised multi-tasking test designed to load on stress response. Together, both studies aim to assess the impact of long-term modafinil use of cognitive and psychophysiological health.

Future plans:
After completion of my PhD, I hope to go onto postdoctoral research with the eventual aim of obtaining a lectureship at a university, and thus a career in academic research. As my primary area of interest is research in psychopharmacology, my ambition is to build on this field and my investigations into PCE that have already begun with my PhD, so that knowledge and understanding of these drugs can be increased.

Kate Slade

Thesis title:
The physiological correlates of listening effort

Supervisory team:
Dr Michael Richter, Professor Stephen Fairclough, Professor Sophia Kramer (University of Amsterdam)

Funding/collaborators:
LJMU funded

Summary of PhD:
Individuals with hearing impairment report suffering with increased mental fatigue, leading to issues including stress and absenteeism, due to the need to invest excessive mental effort in everyday listening situations.

My research will utilise psychophysiological theories to examine systematically whether measures of autonomic effort-driven cardiac responses (systolic blood pressure, pre-ejection period and heart rate variability) are useful indicators of listening effort and mental fatigue, which might help audiologist to enhance the quality of audiometric assessments and hearing aid fitting. To this objective, guided by the framework of motivational intensity theory, I will conduct studies to test the impact of both listening demand and the importance of understanding speech on effort-driven cardiac responses and examine whether observed changes in physiological reactivity can predict listening-related fatigue.

In an initial study, we examined sympathetic and parasympathetic driven cardiovascular responses associated with mental effort including pre-ejection period (PEP), systolic blood pressure, heart rate (SBP) and high-frequency heart rate variability (HF-HRV). It was predicted that listening effort (operationalised as cardiovascular response) would increase as a function of the difficulty to understand speech (listening demand). Additionally, we expected that observed changes in cardiovascular responses would be associated with increases in subjective effort and fatigue. Randomly assigned, eighty-four adults with normal hearing completed one of three conditions of a speech recognition task (listening demand: low vs. moderate vs. high) following a habituation period.

Although no effects of listening demand were initially found for the specific indicators of parasympathetic (HF-HRV) and sympathetic (PEP) reactivity, planned contrasts revealed that systolic blood pressure (SBP) increased proportionately in response to increased listening demand. A secondary analysis however, did reveal a reduction in parasympathetic activity, reflected in decreased HF-HRV, in the high demand condition, compared with combined data from the two less demanding conditions. These findings are congruent with previous research that also demonstrates that SBP and HF-HRV respond sensitively to task demand. Additionally, the data provides evidence that effort-driven cardiac responses increase in response to listening demand, supporting the research hypothesis and the predictions of motivational intensity theory.

Future studies will continue to examine the effects of various listening demand conditions and the importance of speech recognition on effort-driven cardiac responses using more ecologically valid stimuli. In order to fully explore and quantify listening effort and listening fatigue using a systematic theory-driven approach.

Sarah Vaughan

Thesis title:
The pain experiences of individuals with autism spectrum disorder.

Supervisory team:
Dr. David Moore, Professor Francis McGlone, Dr Helen Poole

Summary of PhD:
My PhD project focuses on the pain experience of individuals with ASD. The question of pain sensitivity in ASD is of great clinical importance as individuals might be more likely to experience potentially painful episodes. Individuals with ASD have greater prevalence of co-morbid conditions associated with pain, or painful procedures, additionally children with ASD are more than twice as likely, as their neuro-typically developing peers, to have accidents requiring medical treatment within a 12 month period. A series of novel experiments will build on the existing theory that individuals with Autism experience altered sensory profiles. Quantifying the relationship between stimuli, sensation and perception, through the utilisation of psychophysical tests (Quantitative Sensory Testing; QST) will provide clearer empirical evidence. Additionally, this will expand the knowledge base of the function of C-fibres and afferent nerve fibres, both of which are posited to be involved in sensation, within this clinical group. Furthermore, the project will investigate pain in clinical settings, in order to establish any behavioural responses to pain in ASD. It will not only measure the behavioural expression of pain, but scrutinise additional behaviours displayed during and after painful procedures, coding these to identify commonalities, not typically seen in the general populations. This will enable the establishment of a set of ASD specific pain behaviours. In developing understanding in this area it may be possible to limit sensory overload; an occurrence which can significantly hinder an individual’s daily life.

A consistent pathologic QST pattern that would suggest a defined neurobiological mechanism of the sensory changes in ASD reported in anecdotal evidence, was not observed in either of the initial studies. There is however, validity in looking at individual’s QST profiles where a neurobiological dysfunction may be evidenced through comparison to published normative reference data. Such investigation may inform person centred therapeutic interventions.

Future plans:
My research interests relate to understanding the pathobiology and the assessment of pain in vulnerable populations, continuing with the research enquiries of my PhD and MSc. Additionally, I have an interest in psychophysical measures, seeking to gain more experience of a range of methods. Upon completing the PhD, a post doc or industry research position is sought that will enable me to continue my career as a researcher.

Publications

Search for a research paper

27 papers found

  • A mobile lifelogging platform to measure anxiety and anger during real-life driving

    Dobbins C and Fairclough S

    Publish date:2017

  • Basal forebrain mediated increase in brain CRF is associated with increased cholinergic tone and depression

    Gollan JK, Dong H, Bruno D, Nierenberg J, Nobrega JN, Grothe MJ, Pollock BG, Marmar CR, Teipel S and Csernansky JG and Pomara N

    Publish date:2017

  • C-tactile afferent stimulating touch carries a positive affective value

    Pawling R, Cannon PR and McGlone FP and Walker SC

    Publish date:2017

  • C-tactile afferent stimulating touch carries a positive affective value

    Pawling R, Cannon PR and McGlone FP and Walker SC

    Publish date:2017

  • C-tactile afferent stimulating touch carries a positive affective value

    Pawling R, Cannon PR and McGlone FP and Walker SC

    Publish date:2017

  • C-tactile afferents: Cutaneous mediators of oxytocin release during affiliative tactile interactions?

    Walker SC, Trotter PD, Swaney WT and Marshall A and Mcglone FP

    Publish date:2017

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  1. Big congratulations to all @LJMU science postgrads today! Especially @kateslade94 and kat for paper and poster priz… https://t.co/3hFxfjSR0J

  2. Proud to see @RCBB_LJMU PhD students giving some excellent talks https://t.co/aoIPk64Jk5