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Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience

Current Projects

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.

A follow-up to our MPH studies with ADHD kids and normal adults – to look at effects of a low dose of MPH on the EFs and academic performance of med students (presumably a chronically stressed population). Who does MPH help and who does it hinder?

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

Unlike other approaches to improving executive functions (EFs), traditional martial arts do not focus solely on training EFs or physical fitness but also address character (emphasizing values such as being a good person, respect, etc.), mindfulness (e.g., clearing one’s mind of thoughts and worries and focusing on the present moment). To further enhance the benefit of traditional martial arts for social-emotional well-being and EFs, graduate student and experienced TMA instructor, Fatimah Bahrami, created a comprehensive Traditional Cognitive Karate Program (TCKP), incorporating social and emotional training into the philosophy of Karate, and more cognitive skills and EF practice into Karate training routines.

Fatimah hypothesizes that 9 months of TCKP training will improve EFs and socio-emotional skills more than an active control condition (stationary bicycle riding) or wait-list controls, and that this improvement in EFs and socio-emotional skills will transfer to improvements in academic skills. To test this, 50 children per condition (150 total), 7-12 years old, will be recruited and randomly assigned (stratifying by sex and age). Children in both exercise groups will meet 1 hour, 2x/week for 9 months (1 school year). Assessments will be done immediately before and after the interventions and 6 months later.

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

Transitioning from military service to civilian life can be challenging for many veterans. The rates of social isolation, anxiety, depression, and suicide among veterans far exceed the national average. Yet, veterans have an attrition rate up to 68% from talk therapy (the standard of care for veterans’ mental health needs). Clearly, veterans’ mental health needs are not being adequately addressed as evidenced by their high rates of attrition and suicide.

We hypothesize that a more communal and interactive method of therapy will provide benefits not previously seen through talk therapy alone. This project by graduate student, Aqil Pirmohamed, aims to see if using a performing-arts-based approach to therapy, namely drama therapy, will aid veterans transition to civilian life by improving their executive functions (EFs) alongside improving their social and emotional well-being. Drama therapy has been shown to improve emotional and social well-being and to improve EFs. Thus, it should engender synergistic benefits. Directly training and challenging EFs is needed for them to improve, but that is not sufficient, EFs also need indirect support by lessening things that impair them (like stress or sadness) and enhancing things that support them (like camaraderie and self-pride). Drama therapy should do both (a) directly improve EFs because it challenges them (remember your lines, inhibit acting out of character, flexibly adjust in real-time if another actor flubs his lines or ad-libs, etc.) and (b) instill joy and a sense of community and of making a contribution.

Conversely, drama therapy should not only directly benefit emotional and social well-being, but by aiding EFs, drama therapy should indirectly aid social and emotional health because improving EFs improves one’s ability to get along well with others, handle stress, and cope. Also improving EFs and social and emotional well-being helps to reduce stress, occasioning a nice feedback loop because reducing stress improves social and emotional well-being and EFs.

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

Children in British Columbia (BC) are experiencing increasingly complex difficulties across multiple developmental domains, especially children in low-income, marginalized groups. There is growing evidence that early interventions to address disparities in children’s health promote optimal development.

Our Place (Promoting Local Access and Community Empowerment) is a collaboration of community-based organizations, local service providers and residents working together to support children and families across the lifespan in five of Vancouver’s inner-city neighbourhoods. Importantly, Our Place is a grassroots initiative developed by and for the local community. Our Place actively engages residents by removing barriers and building capacity within neighbourhoods to co-create solutions that target both individual and broader community needs. Community people report that Our Place is making a major difference in children’s lives, but no hard evidence has yet been collected.

Our Place approached us, proposing a partnership, to try to document if, how, and to what extent Our Place’s intersectoral partnership benefits children and families in Vancouver’s poorest neighbourhoods. Through a fundamentally collaborative, mixed-methods, action-oriented research approach, graduate student Lisa Ritland is seeking to obtain hard evidence on the effects Our Place is having.

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)

Normative Study of the Development of Executive Functions from 4 – 18 years of age

Our lab has recently completed data collection for a 5-year NIDA-funded study of the normal development of EFs, using diverse tasks tapping various aspects of EFs all given to each child, over a wide age range (4 - 18 years). We tested 1,080 children, >60 children at each age, roughly 50% male and 50% female, 50% higher and 50% lower SES per age; 15 ages and 14 tasks per age (2 sessions / child). This complements the Diamond lab’s past work studying EF development yearly from 4-13 years with a small battery of tasks and smaller number of subjects (Davidson et al. 2006).



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