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Exploring the causes and consequences of deficits in social cognition within clinical populations: a study of motor function and interoception

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  • Full or part time
    Dr J Cook
    Dr J Galea
  • Application Deadline
    No more applications being accepted
  • Funded PhD Project (UK Students Only)
    Funded PhD Project (UK Students Only)

Project Description

Research interests/description of main research theme:
Aims: In collaboration with industrial partner BioBeats, this project aims to delineate the structure of social cognition and examine the relationship between socio-cognitive ability, interoception (the perception of internal bodily signals) and body movements. Consequently, this project will work towards a better understanding of the structure of social cognition and the profile of social abilities in clinical conditions like Parkinson’s Disease (PD) and Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).
Background: In contrast to the study of intelligence or personality, little work has examined the structure of social cognition (Happé, Cook & Bird, 2017). Consequently, little consensus exists across researchers as to which socio-cognitive processes (e.g. mentalising, imitation, emotion perception) should be distinguished and which are interrelated. This lack of understanding means that in clinical conditions where socio-cognitive abilities are different, it is unclear whether differences are rooted in a core general socio-cognitive ability (akin to general intelligence) or whether there is an uneven profile across socio-cognitive domains. Our lack of understanding of the structure of social cognition also makes it difficult to map potential predictors onto the domains of socio-cognitive ability. For example, it is known that body movements and the ability to sense what is happening within one’s own body (interoception) predict socio-cognitive abilities (e.g. Brewer, Cook & Bird, 2016; Cook, 2016; Eddy & Cook, 2018); however, it is not clear whether interoceptive function and body movement predict general socio-cognitive ability or specific domains of social cognition. This holds us back from developing comprehensive explanations for changes in socio-cognitive ability such as those seen in conditions like Parkinson’s Disease.
This research project will help to solve this problem by:
Aim1: Delineating the structure of social cognition.
Aim2: Examining the contribution of interoceptive and motor ability to social cognition.
Aim3: Profiling potential peaks and troughs, across a range of socio-cognitive domains, in PD and ASD.
Aim4: Ascertaining the contribution of motor and interoceptive function to socio-cognitive abilities in PD and ASD.
Experimental Methods and Research Plan: Our group has developed a novel battery spanning domains of socio-cognitive function (e.g. imitation, biological motion perception, emotion recognition) and body movement (e.g. fine motor control, biological motion profile, facial movements). In addition, we have worked with Prof. Geoff Bird’s lab (University of Oxford) to develop a battery of interoceptive tasks. This battery will be further developed during a placement with the industrial partner BioBeats, a tech company specialising in the assessment of interoceptive function using smartphone and wearable technology. Typical individuals, and those with PD or ASD, will be tested on these batteries of social, interoceptive and body movements tasks. Training studies will be employed to ascertain the causal directions of the relationships between social, motor and interoceptive abilities.
Expected Outcomes and Impact: This project will help us to understand peaks and troughs across a range of socio-cognitive abilities in individuals with PD and ASD and will provide testable hypotheses about causal factors (e.g. differences in body movements and interoceptive function) that may result in socio-cognitive changes. This knowledge will help us develop a more fulsome account of how and why social abilities change in conditions like PD. Results from this project will be disseminated via publications in international peer-reviewed journals , presentations at conferences, service-user and family focus groups, and reports for (open access) outlets such as The Conversation.
Person Specification
Applicants should have a background in psychology / neuroscience / physiology. They should have a commitment to research in social cognition, Parkinson’s Disease or Autism and hold, or realistically expect to obtain, at least an Upper Second Class Honours Degree in a relevant subject.

Funding Notes

MRC iCASE funded -

Studentships have a consumable budget.

Students will be supported on the following model:
• Cohort Training Programme (13 weeks): additional training will take place during the programme
• Students will be located in their host laboratory when not in training
• Full time in host laboratory (start January 2020)
• Up to a 3-month internship / placement with industrial partner to be taken during or at the end of the research programme


Brewer, R., Cook, R., & Bird, G. (2016). Alexithymia: a general deficit of interoception. Open Science, 3(10), 150664.

Cook, J. (2016). From movement kinematics to social cognition: the case of autism. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B, 371(1693), 20150372.

Eddy, C., & Cook, J. L. (2018). Emotions in action: The relationship between motor function and social cognition across multiple clinical populations. Progress in Neuro-Psychopharmacology and Biological Psychiatry, 86, 229–244.

Happé, F., Cook, J.L., & Bird, G. (2017). The Structure of Social Cognition: In(ter)dependence of Sociocognitive Processes. Annual Review of Psychology, 68, 243–67.

Schrag, A., Hovris, A., Morley, D., Quinn, N., & Jahanshahi, M. (2005). Caregiver-burden in parkinson's disease is closely associated with psychiatric symptoms, falls, and disability. Parkinsonism and Related Disorders, 12(1), 35–41.

How good is research at University of Birmingham in Psychology, Psychiatry and Neuroscience?

FTE Category A staff submitted: 40.80

Research output data provided by the Research Excellence Framework (REF)

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