Biological and cognitive processes

Catherine Jones, Dave McGonigleElisabeth von dem Hagen and Sue Leekam all have a strong interest in understanding the basic biological and cognitive processes underlying ASD. Topics under investigation include sensory behaviours, perceptual processing, social interaction, face perception, attention, imagination, repetitive behaviours, as well as the brain basis underlying these processes.

Catherine Jones, Dave McGonigle, and Sue Leekam are interested in characterising the sensory differences of individuals with ASD. Research by Dave McGonigle and Catherine Jones has identified ways that an individual’s atypical sensory and perceptual responses can interfere with ongoing processing of the environment, showing how relatively basic perceptual processing mechanisms impact on cognition and behaviour. Our group has also helped to pinpoint the relation between atypical sensory responses, anxiety and repetitive behaviour, and identified first evidence of elevated sensory symptoms in parents.

Catherine Jones has been targeting the role of timing processes in perceptual and sensory processing, and also in social communication and emotion. The research recognises that temporal processing, both perceiving time and the production of time-sensitive responses, are fundamental to human interaction. To be ‘out of synch’ and experience temporal disconnect is likely to have a fundamental impact on cognition and behaviour.

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Elisabeth von dem Hagen’s research is broadly concerned with the biological and cognitive basis of social information processing, for instance how we process social signals like faces and eye gaze. This research has looked into how the brain networks underlying the processing of social signals differ in terms of their structure and function in individuals with ASD, and how this relates to the difficulties individuals with ASD often encounter in everyday social interactions. A further aspect to this research programme involves studying the processing of social cues during real social interactions, to order to better understand the key factors underlying social communication difficulties in ASD.

Research by Sue Leekam and her colleagues was among the first to identify difficulties in visual social attention. More recently she has been measuring the capacity for attentional learning in non-social attention tasks. With an interdisciplinary team including Georgie Powell, she is developing interventions using eye tracking technology to improve attention control. An important aim is to identify the underlying learning and reward mechanisms that create change.   This project is featured on our Research Highlights page where you can read more about it.

Catherine’s PhD student, Sarah Thompson,  (second supervisor Sue Leekam) is carrying out a programme of work focussed on face processing in ASD, including the use of eye-tracking technology to explore the looking patterns of those with and without ASD. Elisabeth von dem Hagen’s research also looks at face processing in ASD, but from a biological perspective, making use of both eye-tracking as well as functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging, in order to understand differences in the biological processes underlying face processing in ASD.

Sarah Barratt, PhD student (supervisors Sue Leekam and Catherine Jones) is also developing new research to establish the process by which restrictedness in behaviour and thinking affects the development of imagination.

David McGonigle’s work has shown how atypical sensory responses (hypo- or hyper-sensitivity) have a neurobiological basis affecting adaptation. Dave’s work has a strong biological emphasis and he uses sensory symptoms as a non-invasive mechanism for investigating the underlying neurobiology of ASD.  A critical part of this proposal is that ASD is the end result of a number of separate developmental pathologies that target fundamental aspects of synaptic physiology – for example, some affecting membrane receptor subunits, gephryns, interneuron density, etc. David is using psychophysical tasks to link behaviours to specific neural mechanisms and aims to identify sensory deficits as causal factors during early development.