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Volunteers needed for behaviour study

Researchers at the University of East Anglia are looking for volunteers to take part in a new study that aims to understand part of the brain that has been linked to mental health disorders.

Most everyday human behaviours occur automatically and unconsciously and a key region of brain involved in learning and generating these is the cerebellum. Such behaviours are learned throughout life as a result of genetic factors and environmental experiences.

However, in early life some people develop patterns of behaviour that are associated with later mental health problems in adolescence and adulthood. In order to better understand the role of the cerebellum in this process, the researchers will explore how behaviour patterns learned during life affect a healthy person’s current behaviour.

The study follows on from previous work by Dr Nick Walsh, from the School of Psychology, who found the cerebellum to be smaller in people exposed to family conflict in childhood and adolescence. Other studies have associated this part of the brain with many forms of mental health disorders, such as autism, ADHD and schizophrenia, as well as mood and anxiety disorders.

This new research, due to start next month, will involve testing participants on tasks that involve the cerebellum to help understand how people with a smaller cerebellum might be functionally impaired, and in what situations such impairment may occur.

Dr Walsh, a lecturer in developmental psychology, said: “A major barrier to understanding the role of this region of the brain in mental health disorders is that we still do not fully understand what this part of the brain does in healthy individuals. Furthermore, we do not understand what happens when people find themselves indifferent situations that might uncover these unconscious patterns of behaviour.

“This research will help us understand the development of mental health disorders in later life. We are looking at certain processes in healthy individuals, about how people behave, which will tell us a lot about things that might go wrong and lead to problems.” 

The researchers are looking for 150 people to take part in the study, which will involve three separate experiments conducted over six months.

The experiments will assess two of the primary, yet largely unconscious, functions controlled by the cerebellum - how we control our balance, using a Wii-type balance board, and how we control our eye movements, using an eye tracker. Participants will also be asked to do other computer-based tasks, and two of the tests will involve a safe, non-invasive brain stimulation technique to see if brief electrical stimulation of the cerebellum changes their performance in the task.

Depending on the experiment selected for, participants may be required to attend UEA up to three times, with each session lasting up to approximately 90 minutes. To be eligible for the study volunteers must be aged 18-35, be generally fit and healthy, and have normal or corrected-to-normal vision.

For more information about the study and to take part contact the study coordinator Delia Gheorghe at d.gheorghe@uea.ac.uk.

Image: iStock/BlackJack3D

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