Neurodevelopmental disorders seminar 2015 in Oxford

This year’s neurodevelopmental disorders seminar was held at the University of Oxford on 22nd June. It was a really well organised and enjoyable day. I was eager to attend the seminar day as it covers a diverse range of interesting topics that can be applied to many areas of neurodevelopmental research, prompting interesting discussions, particularly with regards to future directions.

This was my first visit to Oxford too. I got a nice glimpse of the city during a walk in the sunshine through the centre to the conference venue (picture shows bridge over canal just outside St. Catherine’s College where the seminar was held).  

There were two parallel sessions running throughout the day. I found some of the talks particularly interesting; Dr Sam Wass talked about executive function training early in infants’ development. The notion of targeting training very early in development is important in situations when it may be possible to train certain skills early on to support the child’s subsequent development. Such studies involve a number of obvious challenges relating to the practical difficulties of training skills or strategies in infants, and cognitive training is rarely focused on young infants so far. However, clever task designs can be used that do not require verbal or touch response. For instance, training children through providing rewarding stimuli (e.g., via visual salience) to encourage and direct eye movements and thus attention to certain components of the screen. The earlier one can intervene and attempt to address problem areas or enhance abilities, the more room there may be for potential positive knock on effects. Often in children with Down syndrome, the gap between them and their typically developing peers in cognitive performance widens over the course of development, so where it is feasible to attempt to enhance or train in infancy, it seems very positive to do so to support subsequent development. Relating this back to the DSL+ project, we are carrying out our vocabulary intervention when children start school at age 6. Once children start school there will be greater requirements for using their vocabulary and they will need new “academic” words in their vocabulary to support them in their school education.

A point was also raised about transfer effects, and the importance of hypotheses regarding where we would expect to see transfer effects, but also where we do not expect to see transfer effects. In a sense, this allows us to use training studies not only to directly improve the areas that we are training, but also as a form of basic science, i.e., as a useful route to teach us about the areas and processes that we are attempting to train.

Another talk that I found very interesting was by Dr Faye Smith, who discussed research on the consolidation of new vocabulary, this was specifically regarding children with dyslexia, but the key point was that regardless of their dyslexia and the different sleep patterns that tend to be experienced in this group, there remains a key role of sleep consolidation for learning. Again, relating this to our research, those with Down syndrome often have non-typical sleep patterns and some difficulties sleeping, but it is important that we take into consideration the important role of consolidation when we focus on children’s acquisition of new vocabulary items, as this may well play a strong role in children’s ability to learn the words. Allowing children to learn words on day one, and return the following day to re-familiarise themselves with the words, and to have repetition in the intervention over the course of multiple days is therefore an important component.

Another area that I felt had relevance to the DSL+ was a talk given by Dr Mary Hanley regarding classroom visual distraction in children with autism. The children with autism were particularly drawn to visual displays behind a teachers face.  It is important to consider not only the components included directly in the training materials, but also to consider the broader learning environment and the impact that this environment has on learning. With regards to visual distractions, this is something that we have thought carefully about in the design of the iPad tasks themselves. Of course, certain visual materials and colours can be aesthetically pleasing, but it is important that while material needs to engage the child, the visual information and backgrounds are not distracting and deterring children’s focus away from the learning task at hand. Other issues that are not controlled within the training tasks themselves, but rather involving the surrounding training environment may be important too. Clear instructions to teachers with examples of how to interact with the child to maintain their attention to the task at hand may be important to think about as well.

The final keynote talk from Prof. Dorothy Bishop was particularly engaging. A number of important issues to consider in this area of research were covered, among other things, the large variations from one child to the next in any group of individuals affected by a given neurodevelopmental disorder. This was also an important recurring point raised throughout the day, and is always an important consideration when attempting to study any given group.

Understanding group commonalities is extremely helpful, for instance, being aware that, at the group level, there is a common tendency for individuals with Down syndrome to experience weaknesses in areas such as verbal short-term memory, or expressive vocabulary. This helps us to devise specific interventions for those with certain disorders, and for instance in our intervention, to have an awareness of the heightened difficulties that we are likely to observe for many children with Down syndrome when we attempt to include expressive vocabulary tasks in our intervention (this can allow us to devise tasks in clever ways to help children overcome specific difficulties). However, individual differences are also very useful to be aware of, and are very informative regarding the neurodevelopmental disorders being studied. For example, not all children with Down syndrome have specific verbal short-term memory difficulties; understanding why there are some exceptions is important. In addition, awareness of individual differences can prevent us from attempting to apply one set of rules to an entire group of individuals. For our means, an element of flexibility is required in our intervention to allow for the inevitable scale of individual differences across children. For example, we are designing tasks in which children can respond verbally, or can respond with alternative forms of communication such as symbol or sign use where this is the only way for them to communicate and engage.

This seminar series really sparks a lot of important thoughts and discussion regarding methodology and theory that applies to various aspects of neurodevelopmental disorders research. Thanks to the organisers for a great day!

- Written by Liz Smith - 

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