Aims of the Lab

The aim of our research lab is to explore the basis of cognitive variability – that is, what makes individuals more or less able. We are interested in how cognitive abilities increase as children grow older, in how individuals of the same age can vary in their levels of intelligence, and in how cognitive abilities can be altered in developmental disorders such as autism and Down syndrome. Our research is currently or has been funded by the UK Medical Research Council, the British Academy, the Economic and Social Research Council UK, the Leverhulme Trust, and the European Commission. The DNL was formed in 2003. In 2006, it was part of the research team awarded the prestigious Queen’s Anniversary Prizes for Higher and Further Education (details).

In the post-genomic age, there is increasing interest in the link between genes and behaviour, as well as the impact of environmental influence. Twin study research indicates that genes can explain up to half the variation between individuals in their intelligence or personality traits. Genes have been strongly implicated in causing developmental disorders. However, the link between genes (which express proteins within cells) and people’s behaviour is very indirect. Our goal is to establish a cognitive level explanations of cognitive variability. A theory at this level can ultimately serve as a way to connect genes and behaviour. One day, we hope to answer the question: What computational property does your brain have more of if you’re intelligent?

We have three principal methods for pursuing this research: (1) We have a strong emphasis on building neurocomputational models of development. This allows us to explore in detail the computational parameters that can allow learning systems to acquire a more or less sophisticated understanding of their environment. Our work thus far has explored language and cognitive development in infants and children, intelligence and individual variability, and approaches to capturing deficits in disorders including Williams syndrome, Specific Language Impairment (SLI), and developmental dyslexia. (2) We collect behavioural data to help us understand in more detail what is different about the cognitive systems of individuals with various levels of ability. This includes individuals at the upper and lower ends of normal variation, and individuals with developmental disorders. For the typically developing population, we are interested in understanding the link between intelligence and cognitive development. Is intelligence like having a little bit of extra cognitive development, so that less intelligent children will reach the same level of ability at a slightly later age? Or is intelligence something qualitatively different to development, so that more or less intelligent children think slightly differently whatever their ages? With regard to developmental disorders, our current focus is on language development, face processing, and visuospatial cognition in children with disorders including Williams syndrome, Down syndrome, autism, and SLI. (3) In collaborative work with the Functional Imaging Laboratory at UCL, we are using brain-imaging techniques to explore how neural processes alter across development, and how these patterns differ in developmental disorders, thus far concentrating on language. The brain-imaging work includes both structural and functional studies, and focuses on typical development and on Specific Language Impairment.

A central theme of our research is that the effects of genes and environments must be viewed from a developmental perspective. Whatever parameters produce more or less effective cognitive systems (be they mutated genes or different environments), these serve as constraints that shape the developmental processes. Both in our empirical and computational work, we therefore focus on developmental trajectories. In this perspective, we have been particularly influenced by the work of (among others), Annette Karmiloff-Smith, Elizabeth Bates, Mark Johnson, Jeffrey Elman, Jay McClelland, David Rumelhart, Mark Seidenberg, Kim Plunkett, Virginia Marchman, David Plaut, Barbara Finlay, and Dorothy Bishop, and are much indebted to these researchers. In some of our work, we have considered the implication of our theoretical research for education, as part of the University of London Centre for Educational Neuroscience.

Read Gilly’s new blog!

Ancient animal brain traits support modern human behaviour. Read all about it at Psychology Today.

Ever wondered how the brain works?

We recently created a resource that gives an accessible overview of how the brain works. No kidding! (well, actually, there is a bit of kidding).

Schedule of Lab Meetings

Information on meeting schedule for lab members can be found here.

Grant support

Our research is supported by grants from the UK Medical Research Council, the British Academy, the Economic and Social Research Council UK, the Wellcome Trust, the Leverhulme Trust, the Waterloo Foundation, Baily Thomas Charitable Fund, Lejeune Foundation, and the European Commission, as well as studentships from the UK Medical Research Council, the UK Economic and Social Research Council, The Bloomsbury Colleges PhD Studentship scheme, and the Greek State Scholarship Foundation (IKY).

Develomental Neurocognition Lab