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Tracking the cognitive basis of social communication across the life-span

Periodic Reporting for period 3 - CogSoCoAGE (Tracking the cognitive basis of social communication across the life-span)

Reporting period: 2018-09-01 to 2020-02-29

A vital part of successful everyday social interaction is the ability to update our current knowledge using information about others (e.g. their emotions, visual perspective, and language). Indeed, the need to infer meaning during communication with others arises not just everyday, but every time we encounter another person. It is something that as healthy adults, we perform frequently and seemingly without a great deal of difficulty. However, emerging research has begun to highlight that even healthy adults experience difficulties considering another person’s point of view when that view conflicts with their own. Further, research on healthy ageing reports specific impairments in these abilities with increasing age, which raises three important questions: what is the cognitive basis of social communication, how does this change across the life-span, and can training these underlying cognitive skills enhance impaired social skills?

Typically, children develop the necessary skills for social communication between the ages of 2 and 7 years old (Wellman et al., 2001). A key component of this developmental trajectory is the ability to understand and predict events in terms of other peoples’ mental states, such as their intentions, beliefs and desires (termed Theory of Mind, ToM). Interestingly, this marked improvement in ToM coincides with children’s development of more general cognitive skills, called Executive Functions (EF). EF is a commonly used ‘umbrella term’ to describe the processes that are responsible for higher-level action control (e.g. planning, inhibition, coordination and control of behaviours), and are necessary to maintain specific goals and resist distraction from alternatives. Linking ToM and EF makes sense given that successful social cognition requires one to hold in mind multiple perspectives (i.e. working memory), suppress irrelevant perspectives (i.e. inhibitory control), and switch between these two perspectives depending on context (i.e. cognitive flexibility). Research has demonstrated that these EF skills decline in older age (65+ years), but no studies to date have examined the degree to which this age-related EF decline is responsible for changes in ToM ability across the age-span, or whether training EFs could lead to enhanced ToM use. In contrast to previous work (which has targeted ToM as a single entity), the proposed research aims to dissect the component mechanisms of ToM, and evaluate how EFs facilitate successful social communication across the life-span.

The programme of research is organised into three complementary objectives. Within the scope of the broader questions defined above, Objective 1 explores the degree to which variations in ToM ability across the life-span (from 10 to 80+ years old) can be accounted for by changes in EF skills. Objective 2 uses a longitudinal approach (i.e. test-retest of the same participants) to track the changes in ToM ability and EF skill over time in different age groups in order to establish when key developmental changes occur, while limiting the effects of individual differences between participants. Finally, Objective 3 tests whether ToM ability, and hence social communication, can be enhanced through training specific EF skills, and how these training effects might differ across the life-span. The research within each of these objectives will employ cutting-edge combinations of techniques (e.g. eye-tracking and EEG) and paradigms to assess several key components of social communication, including emotional states, visual perspective-taking, and high-level inferences about others’ minds. Each of these objectives will be analysed using advanced statistical modelling techniques to provide highly valuable insights into social communication, its link with EF, and how this relationship operates across the life-span. In addition, we will gain a unique and significantly richer understanding of these processes by examining emerging findings along
Research during the first 36 months of the CogSoCoAGE project has produced 9 research articles (either accepted, submitted, in revision, or in preparation for peer-review), including in high-impact, multidisciplinary journals such as eLife, Cognitive Affective & Behavioral Neuroscience, and Cognition, one book proposal at Oxford University Press, 30 presentations at national and international academic conferences, and 9 public engagement events/lectures. The CoGSoCoAGE research team is currently organizing a special interest conference on ‘Social communication across the lifespan’ at the university of Kent, for June 2018 (see and we expect approximately 100 researchers from around the world to attend As a final project legacy, all validated experimental materials and anonymized raw data will be made available for other researchers at the project end, therefore establishing a rich resource for future experiments and post-hoc data modelling. Although the PI was on maternity leave between October 2016 and April 2017, all the main goals and objectives of the project are being reached and are on schedule. Substantial progress has been made on Objectives 1 and 3 of the grant, with work on Objective 2 (i.e. longitudinal data collection following Objective 1) due to begin at the start of year 4. The key achievements are outlined below for each Objective.

Objective 1 (months 1-36) is a comprehensive analysis of the degree to which variations in Theory of Mind (ToM) ability across the life-span can be accounted for by executive function (EF) skills. Work on this objective is ongoing and due to be completed at the end of year 3, but several important achievements have already been completed. These include:

1- We have developed a comprehensive battery of assessments that tests a broader range of ToM, EFs and other social/cognitive skills than ever before, using state-of-the-art methods and paradigms. Specifically, we use eight different tasks, alongside behavioural methods (measuring explicit responses) and highly-sensitive eye-tracking and electroencephalography (EEG/ERP) techniques, to observe ToM use across numerous domains (e.g. emotional states, imitation, visual perspective-taking, and high-level mental reasoning). In addition, four tasks assess individuals’ EF skills in planning, working memory, inhibition, and mental flexibility, and their IQ is estimated using the Weschler Abbreviated Scale for Intelligence. Finally, a detailed questionnaire measures self- (and other) reported mood, media and tech use, social skills and participation, empathy, loneliness, physical activity, and demographic information for each participant. This entire battery takes 5 hours to complete per participant.

2- To date, we have collected data from a total of 312 participants for Objective 1, spanning an age range between 10 and 89 years old. Thus, we are very close to achieving the planned full sample size for this objective (N=350), and are on track to complete data collection by the end of year 3. Alongside the extensive battery of assessments, this sample represents the world’s largest dataset on social communication, most notably providing the first fully incremental investigation of the developmental trajectory of social communication and cognitive decline. Data processing and analysis is progressing alongside data collection, and emerging results have been disseminated at 22 national and international conferences to date. The majority of publications within Objective 1 will be prepared once data collection and final statistical analyses are complete, reflecting the large-scale, ‘big data’ nature of the CogSoCoAGE project. However, one empirical paper demonstrating that human mirror neuron system activity increases throughout the lifespan has already been submitted for peer review (Brunsdon et al.), and one manuscript reviewing the ToM-EF relationship in healthy adults is in the final stages of pr
This research is particularly important and timely given the significant negative consequences of impairments in social communication. ToM underlies nearly all aspects of successful interpersonal relations, as people need to keep track of other peoples’ knowledge, beliefs and desires to understand their actions and intended meaning. Indeed, misunderstanding another person’s meaning or intentions can occur frequently during everyday conversation, often leading to negative social implications (e.g. taking offence or restricting further interactions). Recent research has shown that age-related difficulties in ToM mediate a substantial decline in social participation in older adults, which in turn leads to isolation, loneliness and poor health (Bailey et al., 2008). Moreover, across Europe (and beyond) there is a clear shift towards an ageing population, with the median age increasing from 35.4 years to 41.2 years, and the proportion of older adults (65+ years) increasing by 3.6% over the last 20 years (Eurostat, 2011). It is projected that this proportion will rise by a further 12% by 2060, meaning that those aged over 65 will account for 29.5% of Europe’s total population. The proposed research seeks to gain a fuller understanding of the cognitive mechanisms that underlie healthy ageing and social communication, and to explore promising new protocols to improve ToM use indirectly via EF training. Establishing success using such an approach would reveal exciting opportunities for the future to apply tailored training methods to clinical populations who suffer impaired social skills (e.g. autism).

Our research is innovative in that, despite the clear importance of social communication and the negative consequences of its failure, no studies have systematically explored the cognitive basis of these abilities, how this might change across the age-span, or assessed whether performance might be enhanced through training the underlying functions. Furthermore, most previous studies have used a single task to measure just one aspect of ToM, and typically record participants’ explicit responses to questions that require an inference about a character’s mental state (e.g. “where will X look for the Y?”). Such response-based methods offer limited insights in adults since they do not provide information on the processing steps that lead to a particular response; adults typically pass these explicit tasks but show some variation in performance when more sensitive measures are used.Our research significantly improves on these response-based methods through the use of a broad range of state-of-the-art implicit methods that measure success on multiple different aspects of social communication. Using cognitive and psycholinguistic research paradigms to explore questions about social interaction will allow us to track the timecourse of social understanding and inferences about others’ mental states. In addition, we are employing sophisticated statistical analyses to break down the relative input and predictive relationships from different EF/cognitive/ social skills, which will allow us to model the multiple contributing factors that underlie ToM ability.

The research is also unusual in that it focuses on a very broad age-range of healthy individuals, from children to older adults (10 to 80+ years old). Most previous research on social communication and EF has focused on a very narrow age-range of 2-7 years old, when these skills are known to develop in typically developing children, or on clinical disorders that affect these skills (e.g. autism, schizophrenia). A growing body of research has emerged over the last few years, demonstrating that in fact social development continues through adolescence and well into our 20s (e.g. Blakemore, 2008). Therefore, it is possible that previous studies have overlooked key stages of ToM/EF development. Moreover, in recent years, ground-breaking research, including from my own lab, has begun