Portrait of Prof Olivier Piguet



PhD project opportunities

Several PhD projects are available with FRONTIER, the clinical research group specialising in younger onset dementia syndromes based at Neuroscience Research Australia. The PhD projects will focus on aspects of memory, imagination, and social cognition and how these processes are disrupted in dementia syndromes (see below for a brief description of each project). The PhD students will use a combination of neuropsychological and neuroimaging techniques to study brain-behaviour relationships. These projects are ideally suited to individuals who have a strong aptitude for research with good interpersonal skills, and have an interest in cognitive neuroscience/neuropsychology.

The PhD students will be based within FRONTIER at Neuroscience Research Australia and the University of New South Wales (www.neura.edu.au/frontier).

Essential criteria: An undergraduate degree with Honours (first class) in a relevant Psychology, or Neuroscience discipline; eligibility for enrolment in a PhD program at the University of New South Wales; eligibility to apply for an Australian Postgraduate Award or equivalent.

Enquiries to: Associate Professor Olivier Piguet (o.piguet@neura.edu.au).


Constructing the social world – How imagination facilitates social cognition
Social cognition represents the cornerstone of successful human interactions, yet the precise mechanisms underlying complex social processes remain unclear. It has been suggested that imagination may provide a foundation for social cognitive processes. Commonalities exist between the neural correlates of imagination and social cognition, suggesting that these processes share a core biological substrate. Targeted research investigating the interplay between imagination and social cognition, however, is lacking. This project will establish how imagination supports social cognition by studying the breakdown of these processes in neurodegenerative disorders (e.g., Alzheimer’s disease, frontotemporal dementia). Using novel experimental tasks and advanced structural neuroimaging techniques, students will gain excellent skills in experimental design, cognitive assessment, and neuroimaging, while working within a multidisciplinary and collaborative setting. This project sits at the forefront of cognitive neuroscience research and offers an exciting opportunity to determine how humans construct and navigate within the social world.

For further information, please contact Dr. Muireann Irish (m.irish@neura.edu.au).

Neurophysiological correlates of behavioural disturbance in frontotemporal dementia
Frontotemporal dementia (FTD) strikes people in their 50s and 60s. Unlike other types of dementia, such as Alzheimer’s disease, FTD is characterised by changes in personality and behaviour. Individuals become less empathetic and increasingly disinhibited. They can show sexually inappropriate behaviour, lose motivation and become increasingly compulsive. Our research has demonstrated that these individuals also show pervasive deficits in social cognition (the ability to understand how others are feeling and respond appropriately). We hypothesise that these changes in social cognition, personality and behaviour are related to abnormal peripheral feedback from the autonomic system. For example, when you watch a scary movie you will experience an increase in heart rate and sweaty palms, signalling a change in emotional state. Without these autonomic cues, responses to the social environment may become unpredictable and inappropriate. This project will use neurophysiological measures (e.g., heart rate, perspiration, facial movements) to objectively measure autonomic function in response to social cues, in individuals with FTD. This project will improve our understanding of the neurobiological basis of social cognition and behavioural deficits in FTD. Findings will assist in the differential diagnosis of FTD and help to inform intervention strategies to manage individuals with this devastating syndrome.

Interactions between emotion and cognition in frontotemporal dementia
Our lives are coloured by emotion. From deciding what to eat for lunch, to what is remembered from our childhood, almost every aspect of thinking is infused with emotion. Individuals with frontotemporal dementia (FTD), however, experience an insidious loss in their capacity to feel and understand emotion. Surprisingly, how this loss of emotion impacts on cognition has been relatively unexplored. Research from our group has revealed that individuals with FTD experience a loss in their capacity to remember emotional events. While healthy adults tend to remember emotional events (such as a car accident or wedding) in more detail and with more confidence than non-emotional events, this emotional enhancement appears to be absent in FTD. This project will extend this new area of research by further exploring how emotion and cognition interact in FTD. The project aims to understand what underpins this loss of emotional memory (e.g., attentional capture, learning or encoding) and to determine whether there are circumstances under which emotional memories are preserved in these patients. Understanding the interaction between emotion and cognition is important to identify the challenges individuals with FTD and their carers face. Furthermore, this line of research will expand our understanding of healthy and disordered human cognition.

Neural circuitry of emotion processing disturbance in younger-onset dementia
How we interpret and respond to the social world is complex, involving relatively automatic and rapid responses, together with more organised, conscious responses. This ability to accurately and appropriately respond to social cues likely depends on a distributed neuronal network. The neural networks underpinning these abilities, however, have only recently begun to be explored. Frontotemporal dementia (FTD) is a neurodegenerative syndrome, which results in atrophy to the frontal and/or temporal lobes. Individuals with FTD who show disproportionate frontal lobe atrophy experience significant changes in behaviour and personality, whereas those with disproportionate temporal lobe atrophy experience impairments in language and person perception. In contrast, individuals with Alzheimer’s disease, which impinges on the medial temporal lobes, demonstrate relatively preserved emotion processing and social cognition. These disorders can therefore be useful in determining the relative contributions of the frontal and temporal lobes, for successful socioemotional functioning. This project aims to explore the neural circuitry underpinning emotion processing and social cognition, using younger-onset dementia as a model to explore these complex human abilities. The project will combine advanced structural neuroimaging techniques including cortical thickness, voxel-based morphometry and diffusion tensor imaging with functional neuroimaging, to systematically examine this neural circuitry.

“Memories of the future” – The neurocognitive mechanisms of future thinking
The ability to remember the past represents one of the most fascinating and complex abilities that humans possess. Episodic memory allows us to remember events that have occurred in our lives, ranging from very recent experiences and extending all the way back to the distant past. These memories are essential for a sense of identity and continuity across subjective time, and are disrupted in neurodegenerative disorders. A distributed network of brain regions supports the capacity to remember past events, reflecting the multifaceted nature of episodic memory. Importantly, recent work has demonstrated that the brain regions essential for remembering the past are also crucial for mentally “simulating” or imagining the future. Recent studies conducted by our group in neurodegenerative disorders reveal that damage to specific regions in the brain disrupts the ability to imagine the future. The precise neurocognitive mechanisms mediating these deficits remain unclear. This project aims to explore the neural circuitry underpinning future thinking by studying its disruption in dementia syndromes. The project will combine novel experimental tasks with structural neuroimaging techniques (e.g., voxel-based morphometry, diffusion tensor imaging), to understand the foundations of memory and imagination. Students will gain skills in experimental design, cognitive assessment, and advanced neuroimaging techniques while working in a multidisciplinary and stimulating setting.
For further information, please contact Dr. Muireann Irish (m.irish@neura.edu.au).

Executive dysfunction, saccadometry and emotion regulation in the frontotemporal dementia spectrum
The clinical, pathological, and genetic links between the frontotemporal dementia (FTD) and motor neuron disease (MND) are a scorching “hot topic” in cognitive neuroscience. Executive dysfunction is characteristic of both diseases, but current methods to detect deficits are inadequate, especially in MND patients. One promising approach is to measure rapid eye movements, or saccades, which offer a unique, non-invasive method to study decision-making. Saccades are abnormal in MND and FTD, but what are the relationships between these abnormalities and executive function? Emotional lability is well recognized in MND, but little understood; could executive impairment (i.e., disinhibition) be an explanation? More is known about emotional dysregulation in FTD, but are the same mechanisms at play in MND? A Ph.D. with our research group could answer these questions and more, as part of a much larger NHMRC funded program looking at the FTD-MND overlap from multiple angles. State-of-the-art neuropsychological, neurophysiological (i.e., saccadometry), and neuroimaging (VBM, DTI, fMRI) techniques will be critical to the project. The group is well established, with an enviable international reputation and strong track record of successful Ph.D. completions. Students will be exposed to clinical neurology, clinical neuropsychology, and develop skills in sophisticated neuroimaging.
For further information, please contact Dr. James Burrell (j.burrell@neura.edu.au).

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