About our research

In general, the brain and behaviour group looks at neural plasticity, investigating changes across the lifespan, the effect of learning, training and rehabilitation and the influence of modulators of plasticity such as sleep. 

Research themes

These themes are overlapping, and are investigated in both non-clinical and clinical populations, such as stroke, brain injury and neurodevelopmental or neurodegenerative diseases

Investigating changes across the lifespan    

Research in this area looks at behavioural and neural changes occurring in children and adolescents, as well as those changes occurring in the older population. These are linked with changes seen in clinical populations

Learning, training and rehabilitation

This area looks at the effect of learning and/or training on behaviour and neural functioning in both non-clinical and clinical populations. In addition, the behaviour and neural function of specific populations such as the military, athletes and experts is studied to look at the effect of long-term training.

The effect of modulators of plasticity

Neural plasticity, and overt behavioural performance, can be influenced by a number of modulators that may help or hinder interventions in clinical and non-clinical populations. The group is currently looking at the modulatory effect of sleep and nutrition.

Research techniques

We use a variety of techniques in our research, and are involved in the undergraduate, post-graduate and PhD training of these techniques within the school.

In particular, we use the neuropsychology facilities to conduct experiments using: 

These setups enable data to be recorded with simultaneous TMS, tES (tDCS/tACS) or MRI, as well as recording of EEG in non-laboratory environments and whilst in motion.

Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) uses magnetic fields to look at how specific chemical elements (usually hydrogen) behave in different environments, or within different molecules. It uses this setup in a variety of ways, allowing investigation of brain structure, brain function, blood flow and chemical composition to be recorded. This can be used to research how the brain performs certain functions, what structural or metabolic changes are apparent over time or between individuals, and any differences within clinical populations.  

MRI Setup

The group has access to Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) facilities via CUBIC, at Royal Holloway, University of London, Egham. The University of Surrey management representative for CUBIC is Bertram Opitz .

This setup enables collection of structural MRI, including Diffusion Tensor Imaging (DTI), functional MRI (fMRI), Magnetic Resonance Spectroscopy (MRS) as well as Arterial Spin Labelling (ASL). EEG Data can also be collected with our MRI-compatible EEG equipment. Lastly, there is an MRI simulator at the University of Surrey, enabling experimental design, control studies and participant familiarisation with the MRI environment.

Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) is a method by which a magnetic field is used to stimulate a small area of a person’s brain. This is done by applying magnetic pulses to a person’s scalp, which pass through the skull and stimulate the brain area lying underneath the stimulating coil, altering the electrical activity in the nerve cells in this area. By looking at small changes in behaviour (e.g. response times to press buttons on the keyboard) during various different computerised tasks, we can investigate how different areas of the brain are involved in these tasks. TMS is a painless procedure and has no long-lasting effects.

TMS Setup

The TMS stimulator allows single pulse TMS, repetitive TMS, and short burst TMS. In addition the neuronavigation equipment can be used to increase spatial accuracy of stimulation over a task or study. If an individual’s structural scan is used with the device, it can be used to show the exact brain area underlying the coil, and the area of stimulation.

Transcranial electrical stimulation (tES) is a method by which a weak electrical current is used to modulate activity of a brain area. This is done by attaching two electrodes (anode and cathode) to the head area and passing a small current between them. Under the anode, the current induces a slight positive electrical potential, making the brain area underneath more “excitable” and therefore more likely to be active. The opposite is true for the cathode, with this area inducing a slight negative potential, making the brain area underneath less “excitable”. 

tES is typically done using a constant current throughout stimulation, whereby it is called transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS). However, an alternating current can also be used, in which the technique is called transcranial alternating current stimulation (tACS). The effect of tES is altered dependent on the current used, and the time of stimulation (including whether it is done during task, or before task). tACS effect also depends on the frequency used in the alternating current, as this can be used to induce a similar alternation or “oscillation” in brain activity in the brain area.

tES Setup

Magstim DC-Stimulator Plus (used with 35cm2 electrodes)

Actigraphy allows us to measure activity levels and sleep periods during the day and night. This is measured by an accelerometer which detects vibrations contained within a small watch-like device worn on the wrist known as an Actiwatch (provided by Cambridge Neurotechnology).

Our laboratory currently uses the Actiwatch-Mini devices as they not only have an extended battery life, but are also waterproof. This enables the watch to be worn for long periods of time without being removed.

The recorded data is downloaded via a reader to the computer which produces an Actigraph, with enabling us to view activity levels and sleep periods across all days. Each ‘spike’ on the Actigraph represents the average activity for every 1 minute. The software can detect when sleep starts and any night time awakenings which therefore allows us to determine how restful the night’s sleep was. Furthermore, the use of Actigraphy may help us to determine the presence of sleep disorders such as insomnia. Please note, Actigraphy merely gives an indication of a sleep disorder, not a diagnosis.

This room allows testing of purely behavioural experiments, implemented using Presentation or E-Prime software to tailor the experiments to ongoing research needs.

Lab Wiki

For more information about the lab and techniques used, please see our Lab Wiki.

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