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Duncan's Research


My research uses non-invasive recording techniques (electroencephalography and magnetoencephalography), alongside behavioural methods, to explore the mechanisms by which we control our cognitive processes and behaviour. Various brain regions are implicated in implementing these control mechanisms, particularly areas within the parietal cortices (e.g. intra-parietal sulci) and frontal cortices (e.g. frontal eye-fields and DLPFC). These areas are recruited when control is needed in order for us to be selective about what we process in the environment. My recent research has also shown that similar control mechanisms are recruited when select information from short-term memory.

My research is primarily interested in how these processes develop through childhood, and the impact of control ability differences across children on their learning. One strong possibility is that a child's ability to control their attention will constrain their ability to maintain information for brief periods of time (a.k.a their working memory). We already know that working memory is an excellent longitudinal predictor of educational progress in childhood, because good working memory is needed to engage in most learning activities in the classroom. I am currently exploring whether we can train children's attentional abilities and thereby boost their working memory performance, and the longitudinal consequences of early attentional control abilities for educational progress.

My research is only made possible by ongoing fruitful collaborations with a number of researchers: Gaia Scerif (Experimental Psychology, Oxford); Kia Nobre (Oxford Centre for Human Brain Activity, Oxford); Georgina Jackson (Division of Psychiatry, Queen's Medical Centre, Nottingham); Mark Stokes (Oxford Centre for Human Brain Activity, Oxford); Mark Woolrich (Oxford Centre for Human Brain Activity, Oxford); and Bo-Cheng Kuo (National Chengchi University, Taipei, Taiwan).

Ongoing Projects:

Why memory fails: Understanding the reasons for low working memory capacity in typically developing children and adults

Collaborators: Dr. Gaia Scerif (Oxford), Professor Kia Nobre (Oxford)

Funder: the British Academy - £269,830

Working memory is used for many demanding cognitive activities, and is best characterized as a 'mental workspace', in which information can be held and processed for brief periods of time. For instance, we might use our working memory to hold in mind a new route to school whilst stopping to tie our shoelaces. The amount of information that can be held in working memory differs greatly from person to person. These individual differences in capacity are important, particularly in childhood: over 80% of children with low working-memory capacity (those in the bottom 10th percentile for their age group) have substantial problems with either reading or mathematics, or usually both (Gathercole and Alloway, 2008). The aim of the proposed research is to understand why some children and adults have poor working-memory skills. In particular it focuses on the role that attention plays in controlling what gains access to storage, which basic mechanisms are implicated in this control, and the extent to which this control can be trained in order to boost working-memory capacity.

Using scalp potentials to explore neural mechanisms of top-down attentional control during perceptual and visual short-term memory (VSTM) search

Collaborators: Dr. Gaia Scerif, Professor Kia Nobre, Dr. Bo-Cheng Kuo

Funder: the Royal Society - £10,440

EEG provides a real-time measure ideal for capturing the rapid neural mechanisms of attention, and because they are often spatially-specific, lateralised effects can provide a good index of top-down attentional biases. I aim to use evoked and time-frequency analyses (particularly in the alpha and gamma bands, and lateralised cross-frequency coupling) to explore the neural mechanisms by which we apply top-down attentional biases to perceptual and remembered input. Among many future experiments in the lab, I aim to: i) address an on-going controversy by testing whether feature-level representations can be accessed in the same way in remembered as in perceived objects; ii) test whether the spatially-specific attention effects can also be triggered via a pre-established association in long-term memory (LTM); and iii) test for cross-modal memory-search effects – participants will be cued as to what to search VSTM for by a tone, the pitch of which will correspond to a particular shape. The aim is to use and develop electrophysiological methods for exploring mechanisms of VSTM maintenance and access, exploring the availability of feature-level representations, the interface with LTM and interactions across modalities.

Previous Projects:

Developmental cognitive neuroscience of attention: bridging cognitive neuroscience and genetics through systems neuroscience

PI: Dr. Gaia Scerif

Collaborator/s: Professor Kia Nobre, Miss Andria Shimi.

Funder: The John Fell Fund, Oxford University Press - £84,779

For the project, we pursued the following question: developmental disorders of attention have provided unique tools to dissect neural pathways underlying cognitive functioning, but they have also revealed the complexity of such an enterprise and the need to integrate findings on cognitive development with neuroscience at the systems and genetic level. This project investigated the intervening level of description, the systems neuroscience level, by combining two child-friendly, complementary and non-invasive techniques that tell us much about the temporal dynamics of neurocognitive processes, electroencephalography (EEG) and magnetoencephalography (MEG). They allow us to gather information about the neural processes underlying cognitive control in typically and atypically developing children and adolescents.

Astle, D.E., and Scerif, G (2010) Interactions between attention and visual short-term memory (VSTM): What can be learnt from individual and developmental differences? Neuropsychologia

Astle, D.E. and Scerif, G. (2009) Using developmental cognitive neuroscience to study behavioural and attentional control Developmental Psychobiology, 57, 107-118

Astle, D.E., Nobre, A.C. & Scerif, G (2009) Applying an attentional set to perceived and remembered features PLoS One, 4(10)

Studying the development of cognitive flexibility in children and adolescents, using event-related potentials (ERPs)

Collaborator/s: Dr. Gaia Scerif, Professor Kia Nobre.

Funder: The Economic and Social Research Coucil, UK - £101,561

The ability to act flexibly within a constantly fluctuating environment characterises human behaviour. For instance, a bilingual speaker can switch seamlessly between using alternative languages depending upon the context. Alternatively, one might need to maintain one's attention on a specific task, object or representation, despite the presence of salient distractions.

There is now an established and growing literature exploring the way in which the human brain exerts this 'executive' or 'cognitive' control over thought, attention and action. This control is essential, as evidenced by the devastating consequences of damage to the brain regions that subserve it (eg Lhermitte, 1983). In addition, a number of developmental disorders, such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), are often described as instances of 'dysexecutive' syndrome (eg Durston et al. 2003).

However, research on this topic rarely investigates:

  • how and when independent processes are recruited over developmental time when deploying control;
  • the involvement of developing neural networks in improvements in control over childhood and adolescence;
  • the role of cognitive control in the emergence of other important cognitive functions.

This research project focuses on these questions, and attempts to understand how these processes impact upon a child's ability to learn.

Astle, D.E., Nobre, A.C. and Scerif, G (2010) Subliminally presented and stored objects capture spatial attention Journal of Neuroscience, 30(10), 3567-3571

Astle, D.E., Nobre, A.C. and Scerif, G (2010) Attentional control constrains visual short-term memory: Insights from developmental and individual differences Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology

Astle, D.E. (2009) Going from a retinotopic to a spatiotopic co-ordinate system for spatial attention Journal of Neuroscience, 29, 13, 3971-3973

Astle, D.E., Scerif, G., Kuo, B.-C., & Nobre, A.C. (2009) Spatial selection of features within perceived and remembered objects Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 3, 6