The group's research covers a range of activities and research questions. These are organised around a number of themes.
Neural mechanisms of episodic memory.
Episodic memory is the memory of past events in our lives, and is particularly susceptible to ageing and disease. Members of the group are investigating how to model this type of memory in animals (Prof. Eacott & Dr Easton), as well as understanding how and where these memories are represented in the brain (Prof. Eacott, Dr Easton & Dr Lever). In addition the group is working on how to use these models of episodic memory in animals to better understand this type of memory in humans, including children (Prof. Eacott & Dr Easton) and better predict its decline in dementia (Dr Lever & Dr Weis) as well as exploring the functional activity within the human brain in healthy episodic memory (Dr Weis).
Individual Differences in functional brain organisation.
Individual differences in cognitive strategies might not always result in differences in performance. However, by the use of functional brain imaging methods, differences in the brain networks that are recruited for certain cognitive tasks can be shown. For example, we are interested in cognitive sex differences and underlying functional brain organization. In addition to differences in the activated brain regions, often a modulation of functional brain connectivity can be identified.
As part of this project, Dr Weis is working on individual differences in language processing on a collaborative project with South Tees Hospitals NHS Trust. This project has a strong clinical focus on the development of a reliable method of cortical mapping of cognitive functions within single subjects.
Susceptibility to false memories has important implications both in daily life (e.g. eyewitness testimony) and in the clinical context. For example memory impairments in schizophrenia have been linked to delusions, that is, false beliefs characterised by implausibility, which are fixed in spite of evidence to the contrary and asserted with a high degree of confidence.
A variety of factors have been shown to influence the formation of false memories and the confidence with which they are held. Dr Weis is leading a project relating these aspects of false memory with naturally varying hormone levels across the menstrual cycle in females
Application of the 3Rs to common tests of memory.
Testing memory in animals using spontaneous tasks of recognition memory is a very common place technique in both memory research and drug development. By making a small change to the standard procedure, we have recently shown that we can make a substantial reduction to the number of animals required in this sort of study. With funding from the National Centre for the 3Rs (https://www.nc3rs.org.uk/spontaneous-recognition-tasks-and-3rs), Dr Easton, Prof. Eacott and Dr Sanderson have been developing this approach further to validate it and make it suitable for widescale use.
The neural basis of temporal processing in learning.
Temporal factors play an important role in learning. For example, animals learn that temporally contiguous events are associated whereas events that are separated in time are not. However, time can also be used in other ways such as calculating the rate that an event occurs, or the formation of a temporal map of the order of particular events. Recent evidence shows that the GluA1 subunit of the AMPA receptor is important for time-dependent memory suggesting that it has a role in temporal information processing. The precise role of the GluA1 subunit in temporal processing in learning is currently being investigated, funded by a grant from the BBSRC to Dr Sanderson.
Associative and nonassociative factors in feeding behaviour.
One of the key factors in determining feeding behavior is memory of previous feeding experiences. Not only does memory affect the amount consumed, it also affects the perceived palatability of the food. A memory of food can be primed either associatively, by presenting a cue that predicts the occurrence of the particular food, or nonassociately, by a recent presentation of food. The role of associative and nonassociative priming in feeding is currently being investigated by Dr Sanderson, funded by a Royal Society research grant.
Neural basis of decision making and reward learning.
All animals (including humans) have to make choices: what to eat, where to live, how to find food etc. Such choices depend on a number of factors including the environment and the animal has to act in a way that increases it's potential benefits, while avoiding dangers. An increasing number studies show how ideas from economics, computer science and neuroscience can be combined to model decision making in humans and animals alike.
The work of Dr Beierholm investigates how humans learn from experiences (good or bad) in their environment in order to make decisions. Computational modeling in combination with fMRI brain imaging can provide important evidence for how humans make decisions.