The Social Brain

Social behaviour and communication are key to interactions between individuals and within groups. Interpersonal transmission of information builds relationships and sustains communities. Conversely, breakdowns in communication and social cohesion can precipitate harm and suffering for individuals and societies, with particularly powerful impacts on mental health. This theme seeks to forge cross-disciplinary research that will increase our fundamental understanding of these vital human interactions, and translate this understanding to benefit diverse individuals and groups.

Cambridge researchers allied to this theme use a variety of techniques, including multi-method neuroimaging approaches and computational modelling, and study unique cohorts that face challenges to social behaviour and communication. This theme seeks to understand a range of cognitive processes contributing to language learning, decision making, kinship and group dynamics.  Studies span the entire lifespan from development in early infancy to decline in healthy ageing or dementia; this work also encompass cross-species approaches and artificial intelligence methods that simulate, or support human communicative abilities.  There are diverse opportunities for application of this research in medical, educational, technological and cultural spheres being actively developed in Cambridge.

Researchers contributing to this theme are widely distributed across the schools and departments of the University including Departments of Psychology; Zoology; Physiology, Development and Neuroscience; Psychiatry; MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit; Clinical Neurosciences; Computer Science and Technology; Theoretical and Applied Linguistics; Engineering; and the Faculty of Education. This research theme is closely linked with the Cambridge Language Sciences Initiative: an Interdisciplinary Research Centre, which connects language researchers from these and other departments.

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Social behaviour – fundamental and applied neuroscience research at Cambridge Neuroscience

The COVID-19 pandemic has magnified our awareness of the practical importance of social influences and relationships. Researchers within the Department of Psychiatry have highlighted critical risk and protective elements of children’s social experiences at school (for example bullying) for developmental psychopathology. The Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience Group focuses on the development of social cognition, peer influence and decision making in the adolescent brain. Social isolation and loneliness both before and during the pandemic have been investigated in large cohort studies and via neuroimaging methods. The impact of the digital world, device use and social media on mental health in young people is of broad concern, and Cambridge neuroscientists provide critical evidence for policy makers and practitioners across health and education on these questions. Studies of the psychology of ideological extremism and group identity formation are highly relevant for understanding radicalization and ideologically-motivated behaviour.

With growing application of robotics and artificial intelligence in healthcare and everyday life, researchers in the Departments of Computer Science & Technology and Engineering are studying how biologically-inspired design and social-emotional sensitivity can be integrated into human-machine interactions to foster well-being, promote cognitive rehabilitation and support neurodiverse individuals. Virtual reality is another emerging technology for investigating and treating a range of symptoms in ecologically valid social contexts.

Communication – fundamental and applied neuroscience research at Cambridge Neuroscience

The neuroscience of language and communication are fundamental to understanding interaction. Understanding language comprehension begins with bottom-up research into sensory systems.  Cambridge has a strong tradition of auditory neuroscience, with research groups studying the psychology and neurobiology of auditory perception in health and disease, particularly with regard to neuroplasticity following cochlear implantation or speech reception for individuals with hearing impairment. Moving beyond hearing to the neural systems involving in language comprehension, research groups at the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit, and Department of Psychology, use behavioural and neuroimaging techniques to study the processes by which speech sounds are perceived, words are recognised and sentences are understood; as well as considering how these processes are challenged in developmental and acquired language disorders. The influence of cognitive processes on acquisition of second languages, and impact of bilingualism on broader aspects of cognition, learning and behaviour are also active areas of basic and applied research in the Faculty of Education, and the Department of Linguistics and Psychology.

Communication difficulties are integral to neurodevelopmental and neurodegenerative disorders. Clinically-orientated research groups study brain-behaviour relationships and cognitive mechanisms contributing to communication and rehabilitation in diverse groups ranging from stroke patients with aphasia, impaired communication in dementia, and in schizophrenia. Developmental research is also particularly active in this area. The Centre for Neuroscience in Education uses EEG and fNIRS to explore the developing brain in dyslexia and the neural basis of developmental language disorders – frequently comorbid conditions which have life-long consequences for educational attainment, economic success and lifelong well-being. Within the Department of Psychology, multiple groups study early-emerging cognitive processes contributing to autism. At the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit, EEG is being used to evaluate language comprehension in non-speaking autistic individuals, and MEG and MRI have been used to investigate variation in neural systems contributing to language ability in individuals with rare genetic disorders, and in children who have experienced socioeconomic deprivation.

Applied language neuroscience research in Cambridge is similarly diverse. Data science approaches including machine learning, network science and natural language processing are being used to better understand and predict trajectories of mental health and recovery from neurological injury. Researchers within the Department of Cambridge Computer Science and Technology and the Information Engineering division of the Department of Engineering study computational linguistics and develop computer applications relating to spoken language, language learning, dialogue, social media language, automated fact checking and imitation learning. The Cambridge Institute for Automated Language Teaching and Assessment (ALTA) uses techniques from machine learning and Neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) to improve the experience of online language learning, especially in resource-poor contexts. The SPLaSH project in the Machine Intelligence Laboratory of the Engineering Department, in collaboration with the Faculty of Education is using computer-based speech processing to develop automated assessments of speech and language skills in 4-6 year-old children. Researchers within the Institute for Public health use very different approaches to improve communication within health settings and change behaviour by design. Collaborations across Clinical Neurosciences and Engineering are developing new and improved wearable devices, assistive communication technologies and optimised cochlear implants to enhance speech perception and connected communication. The theme also intersects with Cambridge English Assessment, a non-teaching department that provides the most widely recognised tests of English language ability in the world, and a range of innovative learning resources for language teachers and learners. These activities can be further advanced by understanding the neural mechanisms that support human social behaviour and communication.