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Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience

Current Projects

The Effect of Storytelling vs. Story Reading on the Executive Functions of Fourth Graders

We hypothesize that storytelling (both the listening and the telling) should improve the executive functions of working memory and sustained, focused attention more than story reading (both the listening and the reading aloud). For this first study, we will not try to distinguish the benefits from being the teller/reader or the listener. Everyone will be both teller/reader and listener in every session, taking turns with their story-study buddy.

Effects of Low-dose versus Normal-dose Psychostimulants on Executive Functions
in Children with ADHD

We hypothesize that the stimulant dose for controlling hyperactivity in patients with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is too high for aiding cognition. Most ADHD patients on stimulants are taking a dose targeting behavioural dysregulation (parents base feedback to doctors on the child’s behavior; no one uses cognitive tests to determine dose). We’ll test the prediction that ADHD patients will perform better on tests of attention, working memory, reading & math, when on half their dose.

ADHD is characterized by lower levels of dopamine (DA) in 2 brain regions, prefrontal cortex and the striatum. Prefrontal cortex is most linked to ADHD cognitive deficits and the striatum to behavioural problems. At doses most commonly prescribed for ADHD, stimulants primarily act on DA in the striatum. At low doses they work differently, increasing DA specifically in prefrontal cortex.

Eighty ADHD patients, ages 6-18, will be tested on a cognitive battery at UBC Hospital. Half will be tested first on their current stimulant dose and 2 weeks later on half that; half will be tested in the reverse order. Version A of tests will be used in Session 1 and Version B in Session 2. A pharmacy will compound each child’s regular dose and half that in identical capsules. Even the researchers won’t know who is getting which dose when. We’ll also test typically-developing youths not on stimulants to estimate practice effects of doing our tests twice, albeit different versions. Performance will be converted to Z scores for combining results on related measures. Each child will be his own control; we’ll compare performance on that child’s current dose and half that. Each family will receive a report of their child’s performance at both doses.

This study could have a major impact on medical practice and the standard of care for ADHD in Canada and worldwide, and might help many of those with ADHD to think more clearly, more easily pay attention, and make better use of their working memory for reasoning, problem-solving, and planning.

Pharmacologically Modelling Individual Differences in the Effects of Mild Stress on Executive Functions using MPH

We are modeling the effects of mild stress on EFs pharmacologically, using a low dose of methylphenidate (MPH) in the absence of stress. We predict this will reproduce the effects of mild stress on EFs by increasing dopamine in prefrontal cortex. Effects of mild stress on EFs differ by COMT genotype and by gender; we are investigating whether we can mimic those effects pharmacologically.

Collaborators: Clemens Kirschbaum (Technische Univ. Dresden), Elizabeth Hampson (Uni. of Western Ontario) & Weihong Song (UBC)

Possible Benefits to Mood, Quality of Life, Memory, and Executive Functions of Beloved Music with or without Social Interaction or Beloved Writings (e.g., Poetry, Stories, Psalms) for Adults Experiencing Mild Cognitive Decline

Music on iPods has been found to tap wells of emotion in older adults with significant cognitive decline, bringing back memories and remarkable cognitive reserve that had been thought lost.
Our goal here is to investigate 2 research questions:

1) Is music special? Might listening to writings that are meaningful to, and treasured by, a person with mild cognitive decline improve that person’s mood, cognition, and quality of life as much as meaningful and treasured music?

No one has looked at whether listening to beloved writings might be beneficial to older adults, much less how its benefits compare to listening to beloved music. We’ll break entirely new ground here. We hypothesize that music IS special and that listening to the spoken word without music won’t be as beneficial as listening to songs.

2) Does interacting with a music therapist together with music improve mood, cognition, and quality of life even more than listening to music alone on a machine?

Social interaction with a caring other and social connection are powerful needs. We predict that listening to music in the context of interacting with a music therapist will yield greater benefits on our dependent measures than listening to music alone on a portable music player.

The Effect of an Enriched Karate Program on Executive Functions and Socio-Emotional and Academic Skills in Typically-Developing Children

A Study of whether a US-Based El Sistema Music Program Improves Executive Functions, Academic Achievement, and Affective Development in Young Children

The potential of El Sistema has excited the imagination and initiative of communities and educators across 3 continents, resulting in El Sistema programs spreading to 25 countries and >60 communities in the US, with more about to start or planned. Independent studies from 2 very different cultural contexts (Venezuela & Scotland) report survey results attesting to El Sistema transforming the lives of at-risk children, markedly enhancing the children’s effort and achievement in school. Our own pilot data indicate that children in the US El Sistema program we are studying have better EFs than their non-musically trained peers.

Collaborators: Sara Cordes (Boston College) and Ellen Winner (Boston College)

Can Drama Therapy, as an addition to Talk Therapy, make the Transition to Civilian Life Happier and Less Stressful for Returning Veterans?

Promoting the Well-Being of Inner-City Children, Families and Neighborhoods through Community Intervention: A Longitudinal Mixed-Methods Study

A Qualitative Study of the Broader Socioemotional Benefits of the JUMP Math Curriculum

The goal of JUMP Math is for every child to enjoy learning math and to do it successfully. This study seeks to understand how this approach affects the teachers and students beyond quality math instruction and learning. By observing teachers and students during lessons, and interviewing teachers and students individually, we hope to discover the program’s effect, if any, on positive classroom climate, pro-social, helping behavior, empathy, cooperation, and students’ self-confidence and joy in being in school.

Collaborators: Tonje Molyneux (PhD student, UBC), KIm Schonert-Reichl (UBC), & John Mighton (JUMP Math).

Study of the Possible Executive Function Benefits of ‘Mathematical Thinkers Like Me’

We hypothesize that this program, which is centered around online collaborative problem-solving that supports student storytelling and community sharing about their ongoing journey as mathematical thinkers will have EF benefits. With the ‘Mathematical Thinkers Like Me’ (MLM) program, students collaborate online to solve rich, challenging mathematical tasks. Then use these experiences to tell evidence-based stories about their development as mathematical thinkers. Student voice is at the center of the MLM’s educational process, focusing on student success with rich, high-quality mathematics.

The opportunity to connect with other students is an initial trigger for interest, as are the novelty and features of the dynamic math environment. Interest is then sustained through collaborative problem solving and storytelling. This contrasts with the often individualized approach to math learning. As interest increases, we hypothesize that that supports the persistence and the generation of new challenges that are required for the development and maintenance of EFs. EFs become focal and accessible by connecting them to the collaborative practices that support success in math problem solving and learning. MLM challenges students to get good at collaborative practices and to tell stories about them -- practices such as turn-taking and balancing participation, holding on to one’s activated knowledge and questions while attending to the work of others in the math space, and engaging with the different solution strategies and observations of one’s collaborators. All of which use and challenge EFs, not in the abstract, but as part and parcel of an activity they care about.

Collaborators: Stephen Weimar (21st Century Partnership for Stem Education), Ann Renninger (Swarthmore), Miriam Rosenberg-Lee (Rutgers), & Darryl Adams (Rutgers).

Longitudinal Study of the Effects of Mother’s Mood on her Children’s Executive Functions

We are longitudinally studying the effects on children’s EFs of (a) their mother’s mood (more depressive vs. calmer or happier), (b) whether their mother took SSRIs when she was pregnant and (c) the child’s genotype for genes that affect serotonin and dopamine.

Collaborator: Tim Oberlander (UBC)



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