Current projects

At the DNCLab, we have interests in three core programs of research:

Program 1

Developmental trajectories of multitasking effects on motor control: a longitudinal study of cognitive, academic and social outcomes.

In young children, there is strong evidence that movement is vital to cognitive development. The ability to carry out cognitive and motor tasks at the same time (i.e. multitasking) is a critical skill for daily living and social inclusion across the home and school settings.

Children with motor coordination problems show increased levels of inattention, hyperactivity, psychosocial difficulties, internalizing problems, and poor academic achievement. Further, children may be especially challenged when it comes to prioritization of attention when engaging in concurrent cognitive and motor activities because of poorly developed or immature executive control systems.

Yet, in comparison to the extensive research on multitasking in the ageing population, little is known about developmental trajectories in dual-task prioritization in childhood through adolescence, and the impact on differential academic, cognitive, and social outcomes.

This program of research funded by the Australian Research Council (Hocking #DE160100042) will use a lifespan and individual-differences approach to investigate three core aims:

  1. to explore the maturational periods of multitasking during gait and balance control from childhood to adolescence and into early adulthood,
  2. to examine whether deviations in multitasking trajectories reflect differential cognitive, social and academic outcomes, and
  3. to determine the developmental changes (in childhood through adolescence) in activation of the prefrontal cortex during dual-task walking and relation to executive functions using functional near-infrared spectoscopy (in collaboration with Prof. Stephen Lord, Dr Jasmine Menant and Prof. Rhoshel Lenroot at Neuroscience Research Australia, Sydney).

Program 2

Attentional demands of stepping, gait and postural control across genetic developmental disorders (collaborators: Dr Jasmine Menant, Prof Stephen Lord, A/Prof Melanie Porter).

Children with compromised attention and executive functioning due to an underlying developmental disability may be especially compromised when required to prioritize attention during multitasking. For example, it is becoming increasingly clear that unique cognitive strengths and weaknesses appear to interact with motor performance to define cognitive-motor profiles across Williams syndrome and Down syndrome.

However, it has been a long held assumption that all children with developmental disorders experience a similar degree or type of motor difficulty, and current interventions have tended to adopt a ‘one size fits all’ approach, which is not likely to produce long-term improvements in motor functioning, with significant implications for academic, cognitive and social outcomes.

By using sensitive dual-task paradigms that equate level of difficulty to ensure individuals are challenged at appropriate levels, the overarching purpose of this research program (funded by the Apex Foundation for Research into Intellectual Disability) is to examine the effect of manipulating modality and difficulty of secondary cognitive tasks on stepping, gait and postural control in genetic developmental disorders. The core aims are threefold:

  1. to examine the extent to which unique impairments in executive control and attention impact on whole-body control using sensitive dual-task paradigms from early childhood onwards,
  2. to investigate the integration of sensory and attentional inputs for postural control across the developmental trajectory, and
  3. to explore whether the unique strengths and weaknesses in the cognitive and behavioural profile map onto deficiencies in dual-task stepping, gait and postural control (i.e. to identify the unique executive control capacity required during motor performance).

Program 3

A neurobiological comparison of the effects of oxytocin on inflexibility, fear and anxiety across neurodevelopmental disorders (collaborators: Dr Izelle Labuschagne, Prof Peter Rendell, Prof Susan Rossell, A/Prof Jeff Craig, A/Prof Christine Rabinak).

Impairments in behavioural flexibility, fear and anxiety are core characteristic features of a range of psychiatric and neurodevelopmental disorders. Of particular interest is the hormone oxytocin, which plays a crucial role in social behaviour and social affiliation.

Recent evidence suggests that the oxytocin system is dysfunctional across several neurodevelopmental disorders (i.e. increased in Williams syndrome vs. reduced in autism), which may offer a plausible explanation for contrasting profiles of social emotional and affiliative behaviours in these two disorders. In addition, the amygdala is a strong candidate target for oxytocin’s effects on fear, anxiety and social approach behaviour (with amygdala abnormalities common to both Williams syndrome and autism).

Yet, very little is currently known about how oxytocin triggers or disrupts amygdala reactivity to fearful stimuli and connectivity of this region with other social brain areas that may underlie increased anxiety and intolerance of uncertainty.

The primary aims of this program of research (funded by research developmental grants at Australian Catholic University, La Trobe University and Macquarie University) are threefold:

  1. to examine the interrelationships between oxytocin levels (plasma levels, receptor gene expression, DNA methylation), amygdala activation, fear processing and response to social threat across anxiety and neurodevelopmental disorders
  2. to explore the impact of early life stress on the oxytocin system and neural mechanisms for regulating anxiety, behavioural flexibility, and affiliative behaviour, and
  3. to investigate the effects of oxytocin on amygdala subregional volume and functional connectivity using high spatial resolution imaging techniques