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Predictive motor control in autism: establishing whether movement difficulties are caused by problems with prediction

Project Description

Autism is a life-long condition affecting communication and social interactions. ~70% of autistic individuals also have movement difficulties such as poor eye-hand coordination and unstable balance. At present, there are no treatments for these movement difficulties despite the considerable negative impact they have on autistic lives. For example they cause practical difficulties with daily living skills such as walking, dressing or eating and reduce school achievement. They can also make social interaction more challenging by decreasing participation in social activities such as play or sports. Movement difficulties can also lead to low self-esteem and anxiety. Development of therapies is hampered by our lack of understanding of the cause of these movement difficulties. In this project, we will establish whether movement difficulties are caused by problems with prediction.

The successful student will compare prediction in autistic to non-autistic adults using a finger-tapping task, coupled with a measurement of brain activity using EEG. Participants are asked to make regular index finger taps, triggering the immediate presentation of a beep (finger tap task). In another task they are asked to listen to the beep without making finger taps (beep only task). During the finger tap task, the brain predicts the sensory consequence of the action (the beep) and this can be recorded as a reduction in brain activity compared to the no finger tap task. We will measure whether autistic participants show this same reduction in brain activity for the finger tap condition.

If autistic people show an altered reduction in brain activity compared to non-autistic people, this would suggest that a predictive mechanism might underlie motor deficits. This project has the potential to significantly advance knowledge about the cause of movement difficulties in autism, providing essential information for the development of therapies.

The successful candidate will be trained to set up EEG experiments and to use motion tracking equipment, including analysis and interpretation. They will also be trained to use questionnaires and in clinical techniques such as the gold standard Autism Diagnosis Observation Schedule (ADOS), which is required to diagnose participants. There are also numerous opportunities to participate in public engagement and learn how to convey science to the public. The BEAM lab is renowned for working with the public and organising public engagement events.

Candidates are expected to hold (or be about to obtain) a minimum upper second class honours degree (or equivalent) in a related area / subject (e.g. Psychology, Neuroscience). Candidates with experience in working with autistic people or using EEG are encouraged to apply.

Funding Notes

This project has a Band 1 fee. Details of our different fee bands can be found on our website (View Website). For information on how to apply for this project, please visit the Faculty of Biology, Medicine and Health Doctoral Academy website (View Website).

Informal enquiries may be made directly to the primary supervisor ().


1. Hayes.S, Matthew. A, Gowen.E, Elliot.D, Bennett.S (2016) Low fidelity imitation of atypical biological kinematics in autism spectrum disorders is modulated by self-generated selective attention. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. 46(2), 502-513
2. Gowen, E., & Hamilton, A. (2013). Motor abilities in autism: A review using a computational context. J Autism Dev Disord, 43(2), 323-344
3. Knolle, F., Schröger, E., & Kotz, S.A. (2013).Cerebellar contribution to the prediction of self- initiated sounds. Cortex. 49(9), 2449-2461.
4. Wild.K, Poliakoff, Jerrison.A and Gowen. E (2012) Goal directed and Goal-less imitation in Autism Spectrum Disorder. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders 42(8), 1739-49
5. Knolle F., Schröger, E., Baess, P., & Kotz, S.A. (2012).The cerebellum generates motor-to- auditory predictions: ERP lesion evidence. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 24(3), 698-706.

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