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Duncan's research:

Duncan's group currently includes: Amy Johnson, Dr Kate Baker, Dr Joe Bathelt, Sinead O'Brien, Joe Rennie, Mengya Zhang, Dan Akarca, and Dr Erin Hawkins

The ability to control our cognitive processes is critical to achieving most tasks. Even when we look around the busy visual scene we need to use attention – a particular type of control mechanism – to bias the bits of the scene that are most relevant to the task at hand. Failure of these control mechanisms results in disorganised behaviour, reduces the efficiency of our cognitive processes, and impairs learning. Our research programme explores these top-down control mechanisms in the human brain, using non-invasive neuroscience techniques with real-time resolution (electroencephalographyn (EEG) and magnetoencephalography (MEG)), as well as structural brain imaging methods (e.g. MRI). We are particularly interested in how these mechanisms develop in childhood, both in typically and atypically developing children. Indeed, these control biases are implicated in a wide variety of developmental disorders, and yet the mechanisms that underpin them remain poorly understood.

We use neurophysiological data from EEG and MEG to explore how different brain regions coordinate their activity. In some cases we use the spontaneous ongoing oscillatory activity generated by the brain at rest. In other cases we explore these dynamic neural systems as children perform tasks. For example, in a recent study we have explored how some brain regions play a role in coordinating the activity of other lower-level areas, using an analysis technique called phase-amplitude coupling (see right).


In addition to trying to better understand how these neural systems develop through childhood, and how they differ across children, we are interested in whether these systems can be altered by targetted interventions. For example we have been exploring how developing neural networks are altered by intensive working memory training (see left), and are keen to see how different types of intervention will impact upon these systems.

Our research is made possible by access to excellent neuroimaging facilities here are the MRC CBSU, and great analysis and technical support. Our work would be impossible without the help of children and families willing to take part in our research - especially children who are experiencing problems in the classroom, like those recruited through the CALM clinic, or children with neurodevelopmental disorders of known genetic cause. We are also incredibly grateful to wonderful collaborators, like Professors Gaia Scerif, Kia Nobre and Mark Woolrich.

In addition to featuring in scientific journals and conferences, Duncan and his team often speak at workshops for teachers and practitioners, and their work has been featured in a number of media outlets - e.g. iflscience. You can hear also Duncan talking about the work of the group on local and national radio.

You can can get up-to-date information about Duncan's research by following him on Twitter, or by checking out the lab blog.

Example publications:

Barnes, J. J., Nobre, A. C., Woolrich, M. W., Baker, K., & Astle, D. E. (2016). Training Working Memory in Childhood Enhances Coupling between Frontoparietal Control Network and Task-Related Regions. Journal of Neuroscience, 36(34), 9001-9011.

Barnes, J. J., Woolrich, M. W., Baker, K., Colclough, G. L., & Astle, D. E. (2016). Electrophysiological measures of resting state functional connectivity and their relationship with working memory capacity in childhood. Developmental Science, 19(1), 19-31.

Kuo, B-C, Nobre, A.C., Scerif, G. Astle, D.E. (2016) Top-down activation of spatiotopic sensory codes in perceptual and working-memory search. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience.

Astle, D. E., Barnes, J. J., Baker, K., Colclough, G. L., & Woolrich, M. W. (2015). Cognitive training enhances intrinsic brain connectivity in childhood. The Journal of Neuroscience, 35(16), 6277-6283

Astle, D. E., Luckhoo, H., Woolrich, M., Kuo, B. C., Nobre, A. C., & Scerif, G. (2015). The neural dynamics of fronto-parietal networks in childhood revealed using magnetoencephalography. Cerebral Cortex, 25(10), 3868-3876.

In addition to leading an MRC intramural research programme, Duncan is also involved in a number of additional projects. These are outlined below:

Ongoing research projects:

Beyond Genetic Diagnosis to Behavioural Outcomes and Cognitive Mechanisms in Intellectual Disability

Collaborators: Dr Kate Baker (Cambridge). Professor Gaia Scerif (Oxford), Professor F. Lucy Raymond (Cambridge)

Funder: the NewLife Foundation for Disabled Children - £117,000

Identification of a specific genetic cause is now possible for the majority of individuals with intellectual disability (ID). However, identifying the genetic cause associated with ID does not currently provide families and professionals with detailed information about the long-term real-world consequences of each diagnosis, or guidance about effective interventions. The utility of genetic diagnosis in ID is thus limited by two major knowledge gaps. First, we lack a fine-grained phenotypic evidence base that could specify the range of functional difficulties most likely to be associated with each genetic cause. Second, we do not understand the cognitive mechanisms underlying variable outcomes in ID.

Addressing these two knowledge gaps will require extensive interdisciplinary investigation over the coming decades. We intend to develop new tools for assessing cognition and behaviour in children with ID and collect data that will provide this necessary phenotypic evidence base for targeted genetic diagnoses.

Baker, K., Astle, D.E., Scerif, G., Smith, J., Moffat, G., Gillard, J., Holton, A., Barnes J.M.M., Baldeweg, T., Raymond, F.L. (2015) ZDHHC9 mutation is a recurrent cause of rolandic epilepsy, language impairment and hypoplasia of the corpus callosum. Journal of Neurodevelopmental Disorders, 7(1), 8

Baker K., Scerif G., Astle D.E., Fletcher P.C., Raymond F.L. (2015) Psychopathology and cognitive performance in individuals with Membrane-Associated Guanylate Kinase mutations. Journal of Neurodevelopmental Disorders, 7(1), 8

Progressive home-based cognitive training following Stroke, implications for spatial bias: A preliminary Study

Collaborators: Dr Tom Manly (MRC CBSU), Professor John Duncan (MRC CBSU)

Funder: the Stroke Association - £171,160

Stroke commonly leads to reduced awareness for one side of space. This slows recovery, interferes with many everyday activities, prolongs hospital stays and can be very resistant to conventional forms of rehabilitation. Persistent bias has been linked to reduced attention/working memory. Recent studies, including in stroke, report gains from intensive computerized cognitive training but the potential benefits for spatial bias have yet to be examined. We have collected encouraging preliminary evidence of just such improvements including in spatial function and self-rated disability/mood, following different types of cognitive training. This project takes the next step in intervention development, using a randomised control trial (RCT) design. We aim to collect data on efficacy, feasibility, acceptability, compliance and technical reliability.

Previous research 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.

Barnes, J. J., Woolrich, M. W., Baker, K., Colclough, G. L., & Astle, D. E. (2016). Electrophysiological measures of resting state functional connectivity and their relationship with working memory capacity in childhood.Developmental science., 19(1), 19-31.

Astle, D. E., Barnes, J. J., Baker, K., Colclough, G. L., & Woolrich, M. W. (2015). Cognitive training enhances intrinsic brain connectivity in childhood. The Journal of Neuroscience, 35(16), 6277-6283

Astle, D. E., Luckhoo, H., Woolrich, M., Kuo, B. C., Nobre, A. C., & Scerif, G. (2015). The neural dynamics of fronto-parietal networks in childhood revealed using magnetoencephalography. Cerebral Cortex, 25(10), 3868-3876.

Astle, D.E., Nobre, A.C. and Scerif, G (2012) Attentional control constrains visual short-term memory: Insights from developmental and individual differences. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 65, 2, 277-294

Shimi, A., Kuo, B-C., Astle, D.E., Nobre, A.C., & Scerif, G. (2014) Age group and individual differences in attentional orienting dissociate neural mechanisms of encoding and maintenance in visual STM. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 26:4, pp. 864–877 doi:10.1162/jocn_a_00526.

Shimi, A., Nobre, A.C., Astle, D.E. & Scerif, G. (2014) Orienting attention within visual short-term memory: development and mechanisms. Child Development, doi: 10.1111/cdev.12150.

Astle, D.E., Harvey, H., Stokes, M., Mohseni, H., Nobre, A.C., & Scerif, G. (2013) Distinct neural mechanisms of individual and developmental differences in VSTM. Developmental Psychobiology, doi: 10.1002/dev.21126.

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 (Oxford)

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.

Poliakov, E., Stokes, M.G., Woolrich, M.W., Mantini, D., & Astle, D.E. (2014) Modulation of alpha power at encoding and retrieval tracks the precision of visual short-term memory. Journal of Neurophysiology 09/2014; DOI: 10.1152/jn.00051.2014/

Shimi, A. & Astle, D.E. (2013). The strength of attentional biases reduces as visual short-term memory is filled. Journal of Neurophysiology, 110(1):12-8. doi: 10.1152/jn.01098.2012

Gosling, S.G. & Astle, D.E. (2013). Directing spatial attention to locations within remembered and imagined mental representations. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 25;7:154. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2013.00154

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

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 (Oxford).

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) 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