Brain mechanisms of flexible cognitive control

Lead Research Organisation: University of Cambridge

Abstract

Everything we think and do depends on our ability to pay attention. Since our brains can only process a limited amount of information at once, we use attention to prioritise what is most important. But what is most important also changes from moment to moment, so we also need to be flexible, and able to quickly change what we pay attention to.

When key brain regions that support this process, like the frontal lobe, are damaged, patients find it difficult to make sense of the world around them. The result is often lifelong disability with corresponding healthcare burden.

The aim of this project is to understand the neural basis for attention in healthy adults. To achieve this we combine innovative analysis methods and state-of-the-art neuroimaging and neurostimulation technology. We test a unifying account of cognition: that key brain areas direct attention from moment-to-moment and assemble these brief ‘building blocks’ of temporary focus into a meaningful series as we think and act.

We are at a turning point in brain imaging: we have sophisticated technologies to measure brain activation, but need new analysis methods to link this activation with the behaviour it is thought to support. Contributing to a global effort to understand the brain, the expected outcomes will substantially improve the inferences we can make from brain imaging, advance knowledge about how attention works and help us move closer to understanding how the human brain gives rise to cognition.

Technical Summary

At first glance, two great hallmarks of cognitive control appear to be in opposition. First, cognitive control must be selective: in a capacity limited system, processing of task-relevant information must be prioritised above the rest. Second, control must be flexible. After selectively attending to one piece of information in one moment, we must be able to quickly shift to a new set of information as we move through our task and mental focus changes. Building on my independent programme of research at Macquarie University (Sydney, Australia), this new CBU programme will advance the proposal that these features are two sides of the same neural coin: arising from a single neural system that drives selective, yet flexible, processing of task relevant information. Drawing on the CBU’s state-of-the art neuroimaging facilities and contributing to its key strength in methods for exploring mind and brain, we will use and further develop new analysis methods for high temporal and spatial resolution neuroimaging and brain stimulation. We will use fMRI, MEG, EEG, and combined TMS-fMRI, to study the temporal dynamics and causal interactions of information coding in and between brain networks, and seek to understand the links between neural processing and behaviour. In parallel, we will develop 3 applications: detecting lapses of attention in tasks inspired by air and rail traffic monitors, understanding the development of flexible cognition in childhood, and using neuroimaging to index latent cognitive ability in children who do not speak. We will establish key links with the programmes of Astle, Duncan, Kievit, Davis and the Centre for Attention Learning and Memory. This will bring together expertise in neuroimaging methods, attention, executive control, language, and cognitive development at the CBU.
In neuroimaging, the diversity of human cognition is mirrored in the flexible response of a defined network of regions of frontoparietal cortex. Our previous work using multivariate pattern analysis has shown that, within these multiple-demand or MD regions, representational codes adjust, within single tasks, to track changes in task demands, spatial attention, and the requirement to attend to different stimulus attributes. A rapidly changing response in MD cortex could provide a moment-to-moment source of bias over processing in specialised brain regions. Understanding this process may therefore hold the key to understanding the enormous human capacity for flexible thought and behaviour. However, our knowledge is limited in three key ways. First, we lack evidence linking patterns of activation to the behaviour they are thought to support. Second, we do not yet know whether MD coding transitions fast enough to establish the brief attentional episodes proposed to support cognition. Third, we lack data about the causal contribution of activation patterns.
To address these issues we need new neuroimaging methods, and accordingly our second motivation is methodological. We aim to develop methods that i) link neural information coding with behaviour, ii) examine the exchange of information between brain regions, and iii) provide a framework for testing causality. In a final strand of the programme, we aim to develop a novel application of neuroimaging to assess hidden ability in cognitive disorders where behaviour is not a good indicator of cognition.

Publications

10 25 50
 
Description Brain Travel Grant
Amount £1,000 (GBP)
Organisation Guarantors of Brain 
Sector Charity/Non Profit
Country United Kingdom
Start 05/2019 
End 05/2019
 
Description Harding Distinguished Postgraduate Scholarship: Nadene Dermody
Amount £213,252 (GBP)
Organisation Cambridge Commonwealth Trust 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 10/2019 
End 09/2023
 
Description Newton International Fellowships 2019
Amount £103,316 (GBP)
Funding ID NIF\R1\192608 
Organisation The Royal Society 
Sector Charity/Non Profit
Country United Kingdom
Start 03/2020 
End 03/2022
 
Description OHBM Australia Chapter ECR Travel Grant Karimi-Rouzbahani
Amount $200 (AUD)
Organisation Organization for Human Brain Mapping (OHBM) 
Sector Academic/University
Country Global
Start 10/2019 
End 10/2019
 
Description OHBM Australia Chapter Travel Award: D Moerel
Amount $200 (AUD)
Organisation Organization for Human Brain Mapping (OHBM) 
Sector Academic/University
Country Global
Start 10/2019 
End 10/2019
 
Description Postgraduate Research Fund
Amount $5,000 (AUD)
Organisation Macquarie University 
Sector Academic/University
Country Australia
Start 02/2019 
End 12/2019
 
Description fMRI-compatible TMS stimulation equipment for concurrent brain stimulation and measurement
Amount £255,147 (GBP)
Funding ID BB/S019170/1 
Organisation Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 06/2019 
End 06/2020
 
Description Macquarie University 
Organisation Macquarie University
Country Australia 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution We are collaborating on research projects concerning the neural basis of flexible cognition. Until 2019 I contributed to the supervision of two postdocs (one part-time) and two students based at Macquarie University. One student completed at the end of 2019, and one postdoc won an independent fellowship to move to the UK, and the other won an independent fellowship to stay in Australia. From 2020 I am continuing to supervise one Sydney-based PhD student.
Collaborator Contribution Two postdocs, two students and one PI (until 2019) and one PhD student and one PI (from 2020) based at Macquarie University are collaborating with me on projects directly related to my QQ-funded programme. Macquarie University adminsters two Australian Research Council (ARC) research grants that fund the research carried out at the Macquarie end (until end of 2020)
Impact No formal outputs in this reporting period. However, there are several poster presentations: 1. Karimi-Rouzbahani, H, ^Rich, A. N., ^Woolgar, A., Neural correlates of vigilance decrements: can we use and a neuroimaging decoding method to predict pre-empt behavioural errors? (October 2019). Organisation for Human Brain Mapping, Australasian Chapter. (^ equal contribution) 2. Moerel, D., ^Rich, A.N., ^Woolgar, A., Disentangling the effects of attention and decision-making in space and time (August 2019). European Conference on Visual Perception. Perception 48, 57-57 (^ equal contribution) 3. Moerel, D., Grootswagers, T., Robinson, A., Carlson, T., Woolgar, A., Rich, A.N., Separable effects of attention and temporal expectation on orientation decoding in EEG (September 2019). British Association of Cognitive Neuroscience 4. Woolgar, A., Dermody, N., Afshar, S., Williams, M.A., Rich, A.N. (Nov 2018) Multivoxel coding on error trials links neural activity in frontoparietal cortex to behaviour. Society for Neuroscience Annual Meeting (San Diego, CA, USA) 5. Robinson, A., Rich, A.N., Woolgar, A. (Nov 2018) Linking adaptive neural responses to behaviour using magnetoencephalography. Society for Neuroscience Annual Meeting (San Diego, CA, USA) 6. Petit, S. Badcock, N.A., Woolgar, A., (2018) Discovering hidden treasures: towards a measure of command-following abilities in non-verbal children using functional transcranial Doppler Ultrasound. Australasian Cognitive Neuroscience Society Conference (Melbourne, Victoria, Australia) 7. Rich, A.N., Moerel, D., Williams, M.A., Duncan, J. Woolgar, A. (2018) Implementing attention across the senses: Testing for modality-specific vs abstract rule encoding in frontoparietal cortex. Australasian Cognitive Neuroscience Society Conference (Melbourne, Victoria, Australia) 8. Moerel, D., Woolgar, A., Wiggins, M., Wolfe, J., Helton, W. Rich, A.N. (2018) Multiple object monitoring: what affects sustained attention to dynamic displays when targets are rare? Australasian Cognitive Neuroscience Society Conference (Melbourne, Victoria, Australia) In addition we have 5 co-authored papers submitted.
Start Year 2018
 
Description Presentation at Macquarie University's Open Day 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an open day or visit at my research institution
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Presentation at the department of Cognitive Science at Macquarie University's Open Day
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description "Information flow in the human brain during selective attention" Max Planck Research School 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact N Dermody presented a poster at the International Max Planck Research School on Neuroscience of Communication Summer School, Leipzig, Germany.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
 
Description 'Visualisation in MATLAB', Introduction to MATLAB course 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact Lydia Barnes gave a presentation on 'Visualisation in MATLAB', as part of the MRC's Introduction to MATLAB course, which was attended by postgraduate students and academics from Cambridge and London.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
 
Description 31st Cambridge Neuroscience Symposium 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact A team member gave a talk at a local research symposium targetting ECRs:

Barnes, L.J., Goddard, E., & Woolgar, A. (2019, April). Tracking rules, attention, and stimuli with MEG MVPA. MEGUK Conference, Cardiff University, Cardiff.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
 
Description Australasian Cognitive Neuroscience Society conference 2019 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact To team members presented at the Australasian Cognitive Neuroscience Society conference, Launceston, Australia:
1. Moerel, D., Rich, A.N., Woolgar, A., Disentangling the effects of attention and decision-making in space and time (November 2019). Talk given at the Australasian Cognitive Neuroscience Society conference, Launceston, Australia.

2. Karimi-Rouzbahani, H, Rich, A. N., Woolgar, A., Neural correlates of vigilance decrements: can we use brain decoding method to pre-empt behavioural errors? (November 2019). Australasian Cognitive Neuroscience Society conference, Launceston, Australia.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
 
Description Brain imaging demonstration at Open Day 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an open day or visit at my research institution
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Demostrated portable neuroimaging to members of the public. People were able to see electrical responses from their brains on a computer in real time and try to modulate them. This generated much interest and discussion.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description CBU open day 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an open day or visit at my research institution
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact We performed brief EEG recording demonstrations on individuals. This demonstration was about increasing public awareness about neuroscience and allowed us to promote our research.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
URL http://www.mrc-cbu.cam.ac.uk/blog/2019/05/mrc-festival-of-medical-research-unit-open-day-2/
 
Description Delivering program of academic enrichment to schools (Brilliant Club) 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact Groups of 6 pupils from backgrounds typically under-represented in highly selective universities underwent a program of University-style education on topics related to cognition and cognitive control designed by a member of the lab over the course of 7-10 weeks. Outcomes for individual participants is unknown, but an impact analysis conducted by the Brilliant Club and the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (2018/19) evaluate that pupils enrolled in this program are 17% more likely to progress to highly selective universities than matched controls.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019,2020
URL https://thebrilliantclub.org/about-the-brilliant-club/research-and-impact-series/
 
Description Delivering program of academic enrichment to schools (Oxford Summer Courses) 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Groups of 6 pupils from international backgrounds underwent an intensive program of University-style education on topics related to cognition and cognitive control designed by a member of the lab over the course of 2 weeks. Students reported greated enthusiasm for university study in related topic areas.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
URL https://oxfordsummercourses.com/psychology/cambridge/18-24-years-a0w1o00000c0fh4aan/
 
Description International Society for Autism Research annual conference, Montreal (Canada) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact Poster session presented at the International Society for Autism Research annual conference, Montreal (CA):

Petit, S., Badcock, NA., Woolgar, A. (2019, May) Unlocking Hidden Voices - Detecting Intact Language Comprehension in Non-Verbal Autistic Children Using Electroencephalography. Poster session presented at the International Society for Autism Research annual conference, Montreal (CA).
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
 
Description Multimodal imaging (EEG-fMRI) talk 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact We gave a talk on the promise and challenge of concurrent EEG-fMRI methods
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
URL http://imaging.mrc-cbu.cam.ac.uk/methods/MethodsDaySchedule
 
Description Non-linearities in the Visual System at CBU internal seminar series 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact Team member Alyse Brown gave a talk for the internal seminar serries that is held at the CBU. Several questions were asked after the talk that created good discussion.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
 
Description Organisation for Human Brain Mapping, Australasian Chapter 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact Two team members presented at the Australian Chapter of the Organisation for Human Brain mapping:

1. Karimi-Rouzbahani, H, ^Rich, A. N., ^Woolgar, A., Neural correlates of vigilance decrements: can we use neuroimaging decoding method to predict and pre-empt behavioural errors? (October 2019). Talk at the Organisation for Human Brain Mapping, Australasian Chapter, Newcastle, Australia. (^ equal contribution)

2. Moerel, D., ^Rich, A.N., ^Woolgar, A., Disentangling the effects of attention and decision-making in space and time (October 2019). Poster presented at the Organization of Human Brain Mapping conference, Australia chapter, Newcastle, Australia. (^ equal contribution)
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
 
Description Poster at MEGUK Conference 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact A team member gave a poster at this National conference:

Barnes, L.J., Goddard, E., & Woolgar, A. (2019, April). Tracking rules, attention, and stimuli with MEG MVPA. MEGUK Conference, Cardiff University, Cardiff.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
 
Description Poster at the Society for Neuroscience's 2018 "Brain Awareness Campaign Event" 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact We presented a poster reporting on our successful design and implementation of brain science outreach for primary schools at the "Brain Awareness Campaign Event" of the Society for Neuroscience annual meeting in California (USA). The primary audience was other academics. We stimulated good discussion and believe we inspired others to attempt outreach in primary schools.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
URL https://www.sfn.org/Outreach/Brain-Awareness-Campaign
 
Description S Petit 3MT finals presentation 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Team member gave a talk at the final of the Asia-Pacific 3-minute-thesis competition. This was recorded and posted online. It generated discussion and requests for research participation.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
URL https://vimeo.com/292832535
 
Description Society for Neuroscience Conference 2018 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact Participated in the 2018 meeting of the Society for Neuroscience, gave a poster presentation on our current work stimulating interesting discussion with other academics.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description Symposium: The information content of brain activity in real time at the British Association for Cognitive Neuroscience 2019 meeting + poster 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact Two team members gave talks in a Symposium on "The information content of brain activity in real time" at the BACN conference 2019:

Alexandra Woolgar
Spatial and feature-based attention have distinct, interacting, effects on population-level tuning

Denise Moerel
Disentangling the effects of attention and decision-making on the dynamic representation of visual stimuli

A team meber also gave a poster at this meeting:

Moerel, D., Grootswagers, T., Robinson, A., Carlson, T., Woolgar, A., Rich, A.N., (September 2019) Separable effects of attention and temporal expectation on orientation decoding in EEG. British Association of Cognitive Neuroscience (Cambridge, UK)
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
 
Description TMS-fMRI Methods talk 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact Presented a talk on the promise and challenge of concurrent TMS-fMRI and the details of the new setup at the MRC CBU.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
URL http://imaging.mrc-cbu.cam.ac.uk/methods/MethodsDaySchedule