Research in the O’Connell lab is seeking to understand the neural mechanisms underpinning high-level cognition. This work comprises both basic and translational research and employs a range of psychophysiological techniques including EEG, fMRI, autonomic system measurement and transcranial stimulation. Our primary research interests include:
Perceptual Decision Making
One of the central challenges for the field of neuroscience is to understand how the brain allows us to make reliable categorical decisions from the noisy sensory information it receives. Recently, in collaboration with Simon Kelly of the City College of New York, we devised a novel paradigm that makes it possible to isolate and continuously track the key information processing stages intervening between sensation and action during simple perceptual decisions in discrete human brain signals (see O’Connell, Dockree & Kelly, 2012). This technique is now allowing us to explore the mechanisms that influence the timing and accuracy of perceptual decision making in both clinical (e.g. mild cognitive impairment, ADHD) and non-clinical populations.
The brain possesses specialized systems for continually monitoring our performance and for adjusting our behaviour if an error is detected. Occasionally however, this monitoring system fails us and an error can go unnoticed, depriving us of a crucial opportunity to take remedial action. Such failures of self-awareness can cause significant functional impairment in a range of clinical populations. Our group is currently exploring the neural processes that determine whether or not a performance error will enter consciousness (e.g. Murphy et al 2012).
Our research is also directed toward understanding how, why and when attention levels fluctuate. Lapses of attention are a leading cause of human error and a major focus of our work has been to develop laboratory tests that mimic real life situations and make it possible to continuously track neural signatures of spatial and non-spatial attention over time. In collaboration with Mark Bellgrove of Monash University, we are utilizing pharmacological and genetic analysis techniques to probe the neurochemical influences on visuospatial and vigilant attention. Our lab is also seeking to capitalize on an increased understanding of attention systems to develop novel cognitive training techniques that exploit known brain-behaviour relationships. With Professor Ian Robertson and Dr Jessica Bramham, we are currently engaged in a 3-year trial of a biofeedback-based attention training program for adults with ADHD.