Individual Research Projects

The role of sleep in early cognitive development

Early Stage Researcher: Louisa Gossé

Supervisors: Emily Jones (BBK), Frank Wiesemann (P&G), Clare Elwell (UCL)

Louisa is spending the first year and a half of her PhD in Frankfurt with industrial partner, Procter & Gamble. The overarching goal of this project is to investigate the relationship between sleep and early neurocognitive development with a focus on learning. The influence of habitual sleep (sleep over time) as well as naps will both be investigated. Recent research has shown that there is a relationship between learning and sleep in infants; however, the details and directionality of this relationship are not yet clear. 

The first study, currently being conducted, is a longitudinal study that focuses on habitual sleep. Infants are followed for half a year and their sleep is measured using actigraphs and sleep diaries. Development of the infants is tracked using EEG, eye-tracking, and developmental questionnaires. The study's results will guide the experimental design of the second study, which will take place at the CBCD. The aim of the second study is to use combined NIRS-EEG to examine the effects that development as well as different types of learning have on subsequent sleep microstructure during a nap. Another research topic Louisa is interested in is music-evoked brain plasticity, especially how music might benefit early development and fNIRS-BCIs.


How touch mediates infant happiness and learning

Early Stage Researcher: Alicja Brzozowska

Supervisors: Frank Wiesemann (P&G), Denis Mareschal (BBK), Teea Gliga (BBK), Matthew Longo (BBK)

Touch is one of the earliest senses through which infants learn about their physical and social environment; it continues to serve these functions throughout life. Its importance in early development is highlighted by studies showing positive long-term effects of skin-to-skin or massage touch during the neonatal period on cognitive and emotional development 10 years later. However, unlike learning through vision and hearing, whose mechanisms are heavily studied, the mechanisms through which touch affects learning remain largely unexplored. This research project combines P&G’s longstanding interest in understanding infant and child skin physiology and parent and child well-being with the CBCD’s expertise in using multimodal behavioural, cognitive and neural methods to understand early brain development. This project will test the hypothesis that learning occurs in optimal states of arousal and affect and that one way by which touch promotes learning is by modulating child’s arousal and affective states. Alicja is spending the first half of the PhD at P&G, carrying out observational and questionnaire studies to understand the what type of touch is most commonly used in parent child interaction and whether touch is use to regulate particular infant states. Alicja will build on this work to develop experimental studies investigating the effects of different types of tactile stimulation (e.g. stroking, massaging, touch with different materials) have on infants’ arousal, affective states, and learning. These studies will be carried out at P&G and CBCD, in the second half of the PhD. Measures of arousal (e.g., heart rate, skin conductance, EEG, hormone levels), behavioural affective responses (e.g. smiling), brain function (e.g., NIRS, EEG) and learning will be taken while or after the child experiences tactile stimulation.


The neural dynamics of motivated learning

Early Stage Researcher: Cécile Gal

Supervisors: Teodora Gliga (UEA), Marie Smith (BBK), Raul Muresan (Neurodynamics)

Educators have long known that children learn better when they are motivated and attentive. However, at the moment, we have at best a fragmentary understanding of how motivation and attention change as learning unfolds, how this depends on developmental stage, and what type of interventions best succeed at increasing motivation for learning. This project focuses on gaining a better understanding of the intrinsic individual factors that influence infants’ engagement when they are learning. Using neuroimaging (EEG) and eye-tracking techniques, it will investigate the link between learning progress and engagement, as well as the influence of executive functions abilities. The project builds on findings that particular electrophysiological markers such as low frequency cortical-subcortical loops (measured by EEG) or pupil dilation reflect information seeking and predict subsequent learning success. The project will use neuroimaging methods (EEG), eye tracking and state-of-the-art data analysis to unveil the underlying moment-to-moment dynamics of information seeking, how they relate to learning and are modulated by motivation. These findings will advance our understanding of the neural mechanisms of motivated learning while also providing important pointers for increasing learning success.


Tailoring the individual learning experience using online educational games

Early Stage Researcher: Susanne de Mooij

Supervisors: Han van der Maas (Prowise), Maartje Raijmakers (Oefenweb), Natasha Kirkham (BBK), Iroise Dumontheil (BBK) 

Adaptive educational games provide a way to (a) tailor the individual learning experience, (b) monitor pupils' practice, (c) collect rich large-scale research data and (d) enhance children’s motivation and engagement. Current online learning systems allow adaptive exercises and instruction to the ability level of the child. Two important aspects can be extended to this approach: Firstly, we can adapt the exercises and instruction to the individual differences in student’s learning (e.g. motivation, ability to learn from negative feedback, executive functions, time pressure).

Secondly, we can adapt feedback and instruction to the task-specific strategies used and type of errors/hesitations made by childrenPersonalised instruction and feedback require inferring the perceptual and cognitive processes during the games, which is usually based on reaction times and accuracies obtained from discrete responses. Eye- and mouse tracking enable us to measure above and beyond this discrete form of thought representation and capture how multiple internal states evolve over time and how these processes interact.  

In this project, we investigate new ways to measure how individual differences in students’ learning impact the learning cycle and how we can personalise the instruction and feedback accordingly. The project will develop novel approaches to personalised learning in children in collaboration with Amsterdam-based company Oefenweb, making use of their over 100,000 active participants within and outside schools. At the CBCD we are conducting lab studies with primary-school children where we mostly focus on how to measure individual differences in learning using eye and mouse tracking. Analyses will focus on whether and how task-specific errors, the level of executive functioning and used strategies are linked to where children look on the screen and where they move their mouse. At Oefenweb, we will focus on how we can implement our findings to ‘big data’ from the online learning environment using advanced statistical methods. In this project, we aim to get a better understanding of online reasoning and strategy use and develop novel approaches to tailoring the instruction and feedback to every child’s unique needs.


The role of attentional processes in reading skills

Early Stage Researcher: Giada Guerra

Supervisors: Fred Dick (CBCD), Adam Tierney (CBCD), Jurgen Tijms (IWAL), Anniek Vaessen (RID), Milene Bonte (IWAL/RID)

This project aims at characterising the attentional processes involved in reading skills of normally developing children and of children with dyslexia. RID and IWAL, specialised institutions for dyslexia health care in the Netherlands, have developed a research-driven intensive remediation program. Despite reading improvements, the variability in outcome is considerable, in particular, the reading fluency. It has been suggested that attentional factors may have a role in overcoming this fluency "barrier."

Therefore, Giada will first characterise the auditory attentional processes which play a role in reading acquisition in the normal developing school-age children using behavioural methods. Subsequently, the attentional deficits which may play a role in the phenomenology of the reading disability will be investigated, aiming at identifying electroencephalographic (EEG) signatures of selective attention. Finally, this project additionally aims at verifying the effectiveness of an attentional training to the children with dyslexia and the possible mechanisms of transfer to the reading skills gain, following the RID/IWAL remediation program.