Punit Shah

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Seminar series on the 'Social Brain', held at the MRC SGDP Centre (King's College London, Denmark Hill Campus) in Seminar Rooms A & B (ground floor) from 4:00 to 4:45pm, followed by wine and refreshments. Everyone is welcome, and no registration is required, but seats are allocated on a first come first served basis. 

This series is unique in that world-class early-career researchers deliver seminars on their work in Social Cognition. After they have presented their research, they also give a short Q&A session involving career advice for MS.c. and Ph.D. students. 
mrc sgdp centre

Previous Seminars

Michael Banissy - (Goldsmiths College, University of London) - The promises and challenges of using non-invasive brain stimulation to improve social perception - 21st April 2016.

Our ability to successfully perceive and use social signals is a critical feature of our everyday lives. Difficulties in perceiving social cues contribute to deficits in communication and social competence, reduced quality of life, and social isolation. Conversely, some individual’s process social cues extraordinarily well and these skills are valuable within organisations. Given this, techniques that enhance social perception could be valuable.  One approach that has been shown to be a useful tool to facilitate a variety of cognitive and perceptual abilities is transcranial current stimulation (e.g. transcranial direct current stimulation, transcranial random noise stimulation, transcranial alternating current stimulation).  This approach enables cortical excitability to be directly manipulated in order to a) inform us about what role different brain regions play in psychological process and b) to determine potential means by which performance may be modulated. While commonly employed in non-social domains (e.g. numerical cognition, motor learning), few studies have examined the utility of this approach for modulating the perception of social information. In this talk, I will describe a series of studies using transcranial current stimulation in order to examine neural processes that are crucial to specific social perception abilities, and whether we can use brain stimulation to aid the processing of social cues. The talk will include studies examining the perception of facial identity and emotion perception in typical and atypical young and old adults. I will discuss the promises and challenges of using transcranial current stimulation to modulate social perception abilities in these groups.

Bio:  Michael is a Reader in Psychology at Goldsmiths where he leads the Non-Invasive Brain Stimulation Laboratory. Prior to taking up his position at Goldsmiths he worked at the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience (University College London) where he completed his PhD and worked on personal Post-Doctoral Fellowships awarded by the British Academy and the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). He works on several different topics (e.g. social perception/cognition, synaesthesia, music psychology, creativity) and has received a number of awards. His current funding includes an ESRC Future Research Leader Award exploring the utility of non-invasive brain stimulation as a tool to modulate social perception abilities, and a European Commission grant exploring the neurocognitive basis of creativity.

There will also be a representative from Rogue Resolutions, a British company with leading expertise in providing integrated solutions for neuroscience. There will be a demo in the atrium, with the opportunity to ask questions and seek further information regarding costs about brain stimulation equipment. 

Jamie Horder - (Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology, & Neuroscience, KCL) - Is the "Social Brain" a Red Herring? Autism, Psychopathy and the Limitations of Localization - 24th September 2015

A number of neuropsychiatric disorders, such as autism and antisocial personality disorder (psychopathy), are characterised by abnormal social behaviour and deficits in social cognition. The concept of the "social brain" has promised to shed on light on these disorders: if certain brain areas are involved in social behaviour and cognition, then it would predict that disorders such as autism and psychopathy would be associated with deficits in these social brain regions. However, emerging evidence suggests that the neurobiological basis of these disorders may be distributed, not localized to any particular brain area. In the light of this, do we need to rethink the idea that sociality is localized in the brain?

Bio: Jamie Horder completed his PhD at the University of Oxford in 2010 and since then has been a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Forensic and Neurodevelopmental Sciences of the IoPPN (King's College London), working as part of the EU-funded EU-AIMS programme, the world's largest grant in the field of autism research. His work involves using neuroimaging including fMRI, MRI spectroscopy and PET imaging to study excitatory and inhibitory neurotransmission in the brains of adults with autism spectrum disorders.

Oliver Robinson (Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, UCL) - Towards a better understanding of anxiety disorders: threat of electrical shocks, depleted serotonin, and brain circuits  - 7th May 2015

Anxiety can be adaptive - it can promote a transient state of harm avoidance - but, experienced persistently or in inappropriate contexts, it can also result in pathological anxiety disorders. One possibility is that the adaptive and pathological anxiety share some common mechanisms which become permanently 'switched on' at baseline in pathological anxiety. In support of this proposition I will present human fMRI connectivity data demonstrating that a circuit between the dMPFC/dACC and the amygdala promotes heightened threat detection under both adaptive and pathological anxiety. Specifically I will present data demonstrating 1) reversible activation of this circuit under transient anxiety induced by threat of unpredictable shock in healthy individuals, 2) baseline activation of this circuit in pathological anxiety disorders and, 3) evidence that the neurotransmitter serotonin may play a role in in modulating activity within this circuit.​ The clinical implications of these findings for anxiety disorder diagnosis and treatment will be discussed alongside ongoing work exploring computational models of anxiety disorders.
Bio: Oliver Robinson is an MRC Career Development Award Fellow based at the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at University College London, UK. Prior to that he spent 5 years as a Visiting Fellow at the National Institute of Mental Health, National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, MD, USA. He received a Ph.D. in Psychiatry and Neuroscience from the Behavioural and Clinical Neuroscience Institute and the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Cambridge, UK and a double first BA in Neuroscience from the University of Cambridge, UK. More info: http://oliverjrobinson.com/ / @olijrobinson

Inge Volman (Institute of Neurology, UCL) - Control of social emotional actions and its neuro-endocrine correlates - 19th March 2015 

Social emotional actions can be roughly divided into social approach and avoidance. When control of these actions fails, well known psychopathologies can be observed, ranging from social anxiety to psychopathy. In this talk I will first provide an overview of studies showing that the anterior portion of the prefrontal cortex (aPFC) is crucial for control of emotional actions. I will discuss studies testing the influence of steroid hormone testosterone and variations of serotonin transporter gene on prefrontal-amygdala connectivity. These connectivity analyses, including dynamic causal modelling, suggest that down-regulation of the amygdala by the aPFC is critical in overriding automatic social approach-avoidance tendencies. Finally, I will focus on two recent studies of the neural mechanisms underlying emotional control in criminal psychopaths and healthy adolescents.

Bio: Inge Volman will start in April as a Marie Curie fellow in the group of Dr. Sven Bestmann at University College London. She currently works here as an honorary research associate. She obtained her PhD in 2013 with highest distinction at the Radboud University Nijmegen, the Netherlands, in the groups of Prof Karin Roelofs and Prof Ivan Toni and continued there as an assistant professor. Her research topics are focused on the behavioural and neural mechanisms underlying emotional behaviour in health and disease. To investigate this she uses several techniques, such as different neurostimulation methods, fMRI and kinematic responses, but also the assessment of salivary hormone levels and genetic phenotypes in student and patient populations.


Anne-Laura van Harmelen (University of Cambridge) - The impact of childhood emotional maltreatment on social cognition -  29th Janurary 2015 

When a child is often scolded or threatened by his parents (emotional abuse) and /or when a child is structurally ignored or isolated by his parents (emotional neglect) we call this childhood emotional maltreatment (CEM). CEM is the most common form of child abuse, however, CEM is also the most hidden, underreported and least studied form of child abuse. An important reason for this may be because that the consequences of CEM are underestimated (e.g. ‘Sticks and Stones may break bones, but words will never hurt me’). In this talk Anne-Laura will present the findings from her PhD on the effects of CEM on cognition and the brain. Specifically, she will discuss the impact of CEM on negative self-cognitions, brain structure, and on brain functioning during emotion regulation and stress response.  She will then discuss how these findings are related with the development of psychopathology in later life, and present her latest findings of the importance of adolescent friendships in this process.

BioAnne-Laura received her PhD at Leiden University in the Netherlands where she examined the impact of CEM on cognition and the brain, under the supervision of prof. dr. Bernet Elzinga, Prof. dr. Philip Spinhoven, and prof. dr. Brenda Penninx. Following this, Anne-Laura was awarded a Rubicon Fellowship from the Netherlands Society for Scientific Research. With this fellowship, she examines the role of the social environment (such as friendships and bullying) on cognitive and the brain in the aftermath of childhood maltreatment. To this end, she is working in the research group led by Professor Ian Goodyer at the Department of Psychiatry, University of Cambridge

Maciej Trzaskowski -  What have we learnt about complex traits in the new era of quantitative genetics? - 25th September 2014

'For decades quantitive genetics applied to family samples suggested moderate to high heritability of virtually all complex traits. Until only recently, molecular genetic studies failed to provide any support to these findings by delivering genome-wide significant DNA variants that accumulatively accounted for only a fraction of the heritability; a phenomenon known today as the 'missing heritability'. A novel implementation of genome-wide data has finally enabled us to investigate some of the causes of the discrepancy. In this talk, I will explain basic principles and methodological extensions of the method called genome-wide restricted maximum likelihood (GREML). I will look at its application to provide further support to what we know about genetic architecture of complex traits and I will discuss what new insights its innovative application can provide.'

Bio: While studying for his PhD, Dr. Maciej Trzaskowski has learnt and applied an extensive selection of statistical methods in quantitative (structural equation modelling) and molecular genetics), in hope to gain insights into phenomenon known as the 'missing heritability'. Dr. Trzaskowski has a strong methodological propensity and high interest in exploring new methods. Since the recent completion of his PhD, during which he won the Gottesman-Shields award for the best PhD at the MRC SGDP in 2013, Dr. Trzaskowski remained at the SGDP Centre as a postdoctoral fellow continuing his work with Professor Robert Plomin. To date he has publsihed 28 papers, 12 of th ese as first/joint first author. He has built his own network of collaborations with researchers in the Broad Institute, the Queensland Institute of Medical Research, Queensland Brain Institute (the University of Queensland), Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, Harvard, amongst others. His research is increasingly recognised, as evidenced by the Thompson and the Fulker Awards received during the Behaviour Genetics Meetings in 2013 and 2014 respectively. Most recently, Dr. Trzaskowski was awarded a three-year fellowship from the British Academy. He has given invited talks at the London School of Economics (invited by Lord Richard Layard) and at the 4th annual meeting of the Social Science genetic Association Consortium (invited by Professor Phillip Koellinger).

Jennifer Cook - An overly honest approach to imitation in autism: How I ended up studying kinematics, motion perception and social learning - 15th May 2014

It has been argued that a difficulty with imitation is a core deficit in Autism that underpins many of the social features of the condition. In this talk I will discuss three constituent parts of imitation: action observation, action execution and action control. I will describe how we found atypicalities in adults with Autism, in movement kinematics and biological motion perception, which may result in imitation difficulties. In addition I will elaborate on how this work inspired us to investigate individual differences in social learning.

Bio: Jennifer Cook completed a Wellcome Trust 4-year PhD, focusing on action observation and imitation in Autism, at UCL with Professor Sarah-Jayne Blakemore. Jennifer was awarded the Experimental Psychology Society Frith Prize in recognition of her PhD research. Following this she worked as a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Cambridge before being awarded a fellowship to study social learning with Professor Roshan Cools at the Donders Institute for Cognitive Neuroimaging in The Netherlands. She now divides her time between researching social learning at the Donders Institute and being a Lecturer at City University London.


Charlotte Cecil & Vanessa Puetz - Psychosocial, behavioural and neural correlates for childhood maltreatment - 1st May 2014

Childhood maltreatment and community violence exposure represent major societal problems in the UK, with profound consequences for child development. However, little is currently known about the ways in which these forms of adversity combine to affect young people’s mental health. Based on a community sample of vulnerable inner-city youth, Dr Cecil will present findings from her doctoral research, including (i) rates of exposure and degree of overlap between maltreatment and community violence, (ii) joint and independent effects on mental health, and (iii) the impact of emotional abuse as a particularly detrimental yet under-recognized form of developmental adversity.

Bio: Charlotte Cecil completed her PhD at University College London (UCL) under the supervision of Prof Essi Viding and Dr Eamon McCrory. Her doctoral research focussed on the impact of multiple forms of adversity on psychosocial, emotional and behavioural functioning. Since 2013, she has been working as a post-doctoral researcher at the Institute of Psychiatry (KCL) with Dr Edward Barker, examining the role of epigenetic mechanisms in mediating the effect of prenatal and postnatal environmental factors on developmental outcomes.

Vanessa Pütz conducted her doctoral research within the International Research Training Group (IRTG 1328)  under the supervision of Prof. Kerstin Konrad  and Prof. Robert T. Schultz  at RWTH Aachen, Germany and the University of Pennsylvania. Her doctoral research focused on the impact of early-caregiver separation on children’s psychosocial, endocrine and neural development. She joined the Developmental Risk and Resilience Unit (DRRU) at UCL  as a post-doctoral research associate under the supervision of Prof. Viding and Dr. McCrory  where she continues to investigate the neural and behavioral underpinnings of maltreatment and resilience in looked-after children and children in need.


Richard Cook - Social perception in neurodevelopmental disorders - 27th March 2014

The term ‘social perception’ has been coined to describe the study of the neurocognitive mechanisms recruited during the perception of ‘social’ stimuli, including faces, bodies, expressions and actions. The emergence of this field owes much to interest in deficits of social perception seen in neurodevelopmental disorders and potential consequences of such difficulties for wider social cognition in these populations. Dr Cook  will discuss his recent research in this area, focussing on the visual perception of faces and facial expressions, in autism and developmental prosopagnosia. In line with the aims of this series, he will also discuss his career progression to date.

Bio: Richard Cook  completed his PhD in Cognitive, Perceptual and Brain Sciences at University College London supervised by Alan Johnston  and Cecilia Heyes . In 2012, he accepted a Lectureship at City University London in the Department of Psychology. In 2013, Dr Cook was identified as an ESRC Future Research Leader and in 2014 was awarded the British Academy's 2014 Wiley Prize for early career work.