Social Cognition across Lifespan and Pathologies

Social interactions affect every aspect of our lives and adaptive social behaviour is essential for individual as well as societal functioning. Humans’ brains and minds are shaped, and normally function, in continuous interaction with other people. We integrate expertise from cognitive and clinical neuroscience, experimental psychology and advanced brain imaging techniques, to explore the behavioural and cerebral basis of natural social cognition and its dysfunction in neurodevelopmental disorders such as autism, ADHD, Bipolar disorders and Schizophrenia. Our research involves the use of distinct but complementary methodological approaches: behavioural measurements, structural and functional MR imaging techniques (fMRI, DTI), and electroencephalography (EEG).

Our group have special interests in:

Social cognition in neurodevelopmental disorders with atypical social behavior

Our researches focus on the mechanisms underlying typical and atypical social skills across different levels of investigation using state-of-the-art techniques, such as neuroimaging, eye-tracking and psychophysiology. To do so we are conducting cross-syndrome studies on neurodevelopmental disorders such as autism, Williams syndrome or ASD, WS, ADHD or deaf children. In these studies, measures of sociability are connected to socio-cognitive (interpretation of social cues, social attribution, communication, interaction and social inferences) and socio-perceptive (discrimination and recognition of social stimuli such as emotional facial expressions or visual scenes) skills.

Atypical social competences: autism and artificial agents

The case of ASD is particularly eloquent in this framework. The early avoidance of social interactions may result in reduced expertise of social cues leading to misapprehension of these cues, avoidance of social interactions and, consequently, impoverished social cognition. Our premise is that as early as these internal factors can be identified, manipulations of external factors in the form of contextual information could be used for targeted rehabilitation. We investigate this hypothesis by studying response of adult and child patients with autism to the perception of artificial agents. Studies with children, including either recognition of facial expressions in forced-choice paradigms or paradigms comparing preference for biological versus artificial motion on a touchscreen display, show differences between ASD and controls in response to anthropomorphic agents but not to artificial cartoon. An fMRI study compares adult with high-functioning autism to controls in a social interaction task with a natural and an artificial agent to verify that ASD patients prefer interacting with artificial agents, a prerequisite to the use of robots in cognitive therapies of autism.

In search of cognitive and emotional markers of bipolar disorder

Bipolar disorder is a severe illness which remains largely unknown. It is characterised by episodes of major depression, interspersed with periods of hypomania or mania and periods of euthymia during which mood appears relatively stable. Our research aims at understanding the mechanisms that underlie the onset and the maintenance of bipolar disorder as well as at identifying objective diagnostic markers of the disorder. To do so, we are investigating, in adult subjects, the potential correlates of behavioral disturbances that accompany the disorder by using paradigms that allow not only to probe different aspects of the cognitive or emotional functioning but also to examine the cross-talk between these two functions. Our work also aims at determining if the disturbances that we have evidenced may reflect disease trait or only scares from non specific symptoms (i.e. psychotic ones), detrimental environmental factors or illness-related sequeale. Otherwise, previous data have shown that the prevalence of bipolar disorder is age-related. The onset of full symptoms generally occurs in late adolescence or young adulthood. Therefore to ascertain which, among the markers targeted in adults, may represent reliable and selective biomarkers of a prodromic phase of the disorder, our research will gradually shifted to examining the onset of mood difficulties early in life by investigating groups of pristine children and young adolescents considered at risk for developing bipolar disorder.

A proactive socio-emotional brain

Interacting with the socio-emotional world is a particularly demanding effort. The brain has to quickly and simultaneously process very complex multisensory information from the environment. Our research projects are framed within the theoretical model of a ‘proactive brain’. We perform a series of integrative research in experimental psychology, neuroimaging and psychopathology aimed at identifying the behavioral and neural basis of the top-down influence of high-level cortical structures involved in emotional processing on perceptual and cognitive processes. We also test this model in the perception-action domain, to explore the possibility that a given perceptual context can prepare the brain to specific types of actions. We use distinct but complementary methodological approaches: structural and functional MR imaging techniques (fMRI, DTI), electroencephalography (EEG), transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), and the development of new image analysis methods to combine and integrate data from models of effective and functional connectivity (SEM, DCM, ICA) with data from morphometry and DTI.

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