Visiting the University of California, Davis

Eleanor Palser

Eleanor Palser (PhD, UCL Research Department of Clinical, Educational and Health Psychology)

I am a fourth and final year multidisciplinary PhD student, studying Clinical Psychology and Cognitive Neuroscience at UCL. I am interested in how signals from the body are used by the brain to help us think and feel.
There are theories that suggest that these signals are affected by conditions like autism and anxiety, and this might explain some of their symptoms. So far, I have been using behavioural methods to research this. However, I also want to develop skills in neuroimaging methods, such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). A combination of both methods might better enable me to answer this question.

As such, I chose to visit an institution that had a strong track record in conducting neuroimaging research with younger populations, particularly with individuals diagnosed with developmental conditions like autism. There isn’t much of this kind of research happening in the UK, so I decided to travel further afield. I spent six months (three of which were funded by the DTP) in Professor Susan M. Rivera’s Neurocognitive Development lab at the UC Davis MIND Institute . There, they specialise in conducting research on the brain basis of developmental disorders, such as autism.

MIND Institute building at University of California, Davis

MIND Institute building at University of California, Davis

Going in the MRI scanner can be challenging – it is noisy, claustrophobic and you have to stay still. I wanted to learn about what procedures can be put in place to help young children, especially those diagnosed with autism, take part in these kinds of experiments. It turns out there are lots of ways to help participants stay calm, including familiarisation training in a pretend scanner.

While at UC Davis, I worked on a project investigating brain and behavioural differences in how gesture is used and understood by autistic children and adolescents. We found out that gestures are processed differently in the brains of autistic people, and they sometimes struggle to produce the hand posture necessary for others to understand their gestures. This may explain some of difficulties autistic and non-autistic people face when communicating with each other.

I am immensely grateful that I had the opportunity to travel to another institution during my PhD. It is hoped that I learnt will help me bridge the gap between my two disciplines, and conduct more powerful research in my population of interest.