Community Research and Development Information Service - CORDIS

Final Report Summary - ENHANCINGFLEXIBILITY (Enhancing cognitive flexibility in autism)

The research project integrated theoretical knowledge and insights from the research field on cognitive training with interventions that target difficulties with flexible behaviour in autism. In addition, the project makes use of developments in technology to bring innovations into the common practice of patient treatments. The main objectives of the project regarded increasing scientific knowledge through experimental research and enlarging skills (and knowledge) of the researcher in order to create a more favourable position acquiring an independent academic position.
There are two important components of the project with regard to scientific research. First, we developed tools for cognitive flexibility training in autism, which entails interactive, multi-modal and rewarding computer games, aiming at enhancing the motivation and training efficacy. To our knowledge, only a few studies have explored the use of digitalized tools in scientific research and patient rehabilitation. This project clearly shows the potential of the use of modern computer and gaming platforms to develop easily accessible and distributable rehabilitation tools, and as a functional method to collect data related to cognitive functioning. One important fact is that the tool incorporates not only scientific knowledge on cognitive training, but also opinions and experience of clinicians and patients as well. In our opinion, this makes it a very powerful tool to further study cognitive flexibility and also to confirm that this method can be implemented in rehabilitation of cognitive functions.
Beside the task-switching paradigm that has provided data in support of the notion of alternate processing style in autism, the project also highlighted the implementation of neuroimaging techniques to gain further insight into cognitive flexibility and explore the potential of the use of neuroimaging as a method to objectively assess cognitive flexibility. This novel, objective method to estimate divided attention through the use of neuroimaging techniques was proved successful and represents an important contribution to the scientific community. Our experiments demonstrated a clear distinction in neural signatures for stimuli containing various levels of attentional load, both in single modality as well as in case of multimodal stimuli. The quick and elegant experimental design allows the use of our methods also in participants that are less capable of keeping their attention for long time periods. The significance of this method is also reflected in our findings with regard to a dissimilar feature integration process make an important contribution to the scientific knowledge about information processing in autistic individuals. A better understanding of these differences should lead to improved rehabilitation techniques.
Moreover, if implemented in the clinical setting, the methods could prove an elegant and useful addition to the existing diagnostic tools used for autism. The methods clearly differentiated between responses related to different stimuli and described distinct neural signatures for divided attention mechanisms. It proves that neuroimaging techniques applied here can help us gain new insights that stay silent with behavioural measures and we very much endorse the use of neuroimaging techniques as objective means for neuropsychological assessment.
Another advantage in the clinical setting is the facilitation of more intensive training, much more likely to engage neural plasticity compared to the conventional training programs and accomplish better results. We expect that this model will be increasingly used by scientists to conduct fundamental research, as well as clinicians, for rehabilitation purposes, considered its inexpensive and much more motivating way to collect data and train cognitive skills.

With regard to training activities, the project has been fully utilized to acquire additional programming/technical skills, including Matlab, Fieldtrip, Unity3D, PhoneGap, Wordpress, and integration of biometric devices. These new skills and knowledge will facilitate more independent implementation of future research projects, in particular in the area of digitalized neuropsychological assessment and diagnostics. The cooperations set during the project with other research groups and institutions (within the Donders institute and externally) will enable the continuation of research line of the project and hopefully new insights as a result of ideas originated in the current project.

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