Funded PhD position: Combining multisensory data during brain-to-brain hyperscanning
The Centre for Brain and Cognitive Development (CBCD) in London is offering a 3-year fully funded PhD position in developmental cognitive neuroscience. The CBCD is a world leading international research centre exploring the links between brain and behavioural development (CBCD WEB LINK). This project will make use of the newly developed Toddlerlab: a dedicated 5-story research facility developed for studying toddler and preschool development in naturalistic environments. The facility includes specialist labs such as the Home lab, the Preschool lab, and the CAVE visual reality lab, all fitted with motion capture, head mounded eye-tracking and wearable EEG and fNIRS.
Supervisors: Prof Denis Mareschal, Dr. Paola Pinti and Dr. Lisanne Schröer
This PhD project will run as part of a 4 year Leverhulme Trust funded research programme exploring the development of behavioural and neural synchrony in collaborative problem-solving. The preschool years (3- to 5-year-olds) are a particularly important developmental period because they correspond to a phase of very rapid development in the planning, self-control, and multi-tasking skills necessary for complex problem solving in social contexts. It is also a period in which the child’s social environment is greatly expanded though going to school or participating in organised playgroups. However, it is also a particularly challenging age to study because preschool children find it difficult to sit still for the extensive periods of time required to acquire good quality neuroimaging data. Thus, the advent of lightweight and wearable neuroimaging technologies that can be fitted into a headcap (or "hat") provides a unique opportunity to shed some light on what has been described as the “black-hole" of developmental cognitive neuroscience research. Little attention has been given to the contexts and situations that can promote shared goal formation during young preschoolers’ collaborative problem solving. So how might pre-schooler establish and maintain a joint goal—especially if they have poor overt communication skills?
One possibility is social synchrony – including the synchronisation of brain activity and behaviours. Brain synchronisation between two individuals interacting socially has been observed in electrical brain activity (using Electroencephalography, EEG) and cerebral blood oxygenation levels (using functional Near Infrared Spectroscopy, fNIRS) The mechanisms by which humans coordinate their brain responses in real-time during social interactions remain unclear. Hyperscanning involves recording brain activity in pairs of individuals engaged in a common activity. Using this technique, brain-to-brain synchrony in adults was found to be linked with behavioural synchrony and the degree of social connectedness among partners. Several studies have also used neural synchronisation as a measure of the quality of the social bond and communication between a parent and child. Intriguingly, one study found that the interaction quality during a problem-solving task involving mothers and their preschool children determined the amount of neural synchrony observed in this couple higher neural synchrony during cooperation predicted the pair's problem solving success.
To enable the investigation of the neural and behavioural signatures in preschoolers while they engage in natural behaviour, the approaches previously used for conventional lab-based experiments need to be adapted. Brain-to-brain coupling between the fNIRS/EEG data will be calculated within an identified periods of salient/social/nonsocial/coordinated behaviour to understand whether social or concurrent behaviour or directed engagement drive the interbrain coupling and how this is related to successful problem solving. Brain-to-brain coupling and its dynamics will be evaluated using both fNIRS and EEG data to explore if brain synchrony occurs at faster and/or slower time scales and which subregion within PFC encodes certain social behaviours. To understand the relationship between brain and behaviour and explain why similar patterns of brain activity are observed, we will build different cross-brain General Linear Models to model brain activity in one toddler as a function of a combination of different factors such as behaviours exhibited by both participants and activity in the other interacting partner. This will allow us to quantify the contribution of each model’s factor (self-behaviour, other-behaviour, cross-brain contribution) and disentangle if brain-to-brain coupling arises from the use of PFC to encode one’s own behaviour and that of the partner. The focus of this PhD project will be to work collaboratively with the project team to develop a novel multimodal analytical frameworkto asses and quantify interpersonal coupling in naturalistic settings. In particular, this will involve the implementation of preprocessing pipelines and novel analysis methods for the integration of behavioral, neural, physiological signals recorded on freely moving children.
We are looking for a highly-motivated candidate with strong quantitative, analytical and/or programming skills and a desire to make an impact in the intersection of cognitive neuroscience, engineering and developmental psychology.
The candidate must have evidence of outstanding undergraduate academic performance in either cognitive neuroscience science, psychology or engineering and ideally have (or be predicted to obtain) a strong Master’s degree in Cognitive/Developmental Neuroscience, Biomedical Engineering, or any cognate field (candidates will be asked to demonstrate how their background provides solid foundations to allow them to focus on the core aspects of this studentship).
Candidate must also demonstrate solid foundations in academic writing and presenting, in independently organising aspects of their research (e.g. through a previous dissertation if not publications) and experience of working with young children.
Further details about the project may be obtained from:
Further information about PhDs at BBK is available from:
Birkbeck Psychological Sciences: https://www.bbk.ac.uk/study/2022/phd/programmes/RMPPSYCH
Application are to be made through the standard MPhil/Phd application process describe in the weblink above. Candidates applying for this position must make it clear in their personal statement and answer to the “funding source” question on the form that they are applying for the Leverhulme funded studentship.
Closing date for applications is: 13th April 2022