Health Sciences

Cognitive Psychology research at ACU

Serving as a platform for the exchange of research interests and projects among staff, postgraduate and higher degree research students, the second consecutive Faculty of Health Sciences Research Conversation was presented by the School of Psychology on April 17 via videoconference across ACU campuses.

The national School of Psychology has developed a number of research strengths as part of its strategic blueprint in cognition and applied cognitive neuroscience, developmental and educational psychology and clinical and health psychology. This seminar focussed on cognition and prospective memory research undertaken within the Cognition and Emotion Research lab.

Professor Peter Rendell is Principal Investigator of the research group and chaired the session. The three speakers were PhD students Kimberley Mercuri and Kathryn Biernacki, and Supervisor/Lecturer Dr Gill Terrett.

ACU’s Three Minute Thesis winner Kimberley Mercuri presented the second study of her research on ‘Episodic foresight impairment in long term opiate users.’ Opiate use is associated with a number of cognitive deficits and negative lifestyle consequences. Her study shows significant impairment in the executive and memory functions of long term opiate users and how episodic foresight, which is the ability to mentally time travel forward, is clearly disrupted when looking at this group of illicit drug users. Since we use past memories to construct future scenarios, we must factor in the future thinking limitations of drug using populations in clinical practice interventions.

Kathryn Biernacki researches cognition and social interaction in long term opiate users. She presented data from her Honours project ‘Prospective memory impairment in opiate users’. Prospective Memory (PM) is the ability to remember to perform actions in the future. PM is involved in tasks like keeping appointments and taking medication, and thus is critical to daily independent living. In assessing PM in long term opiate users, her study showed that this group were significantly worse in performing tasks in the future. This was a relatively high functioning group with only modest and mixed cognitive deficits on most other cognitive tasks. Importantly however, this group had a substantial and generalised deficit in the ability to complete PM tasks. The primary method used to show this result was Virtual Week, a computer-based program developed by Professor Rendell, which assesses prospective memory. It is recognised as the one of the most ecologically valid and reliable measures of prospective memory.

Dr Gill Terrett researches cognitive functioning within a range of clinical populations. She presented ‘A study of prospective memory function in children with autistic spectrum disorders using ‘Virtual Week’. The results showed that this clinical group have difficulties with prospective memory (PM) compared to typically developing (TD) children but that the level of difficulty varies as a function of different PM task characteristics. Most notably, children with autism were found to have particular difficulties with time based prospective memory. Furthermore, this study provided the first empiri cal evidence that time based PM ability is related to level of functional independence in both TD children and children with autism. These findings will help in the design of support and intervention strategies tailored to this group.

Find out more about the The Cognition and Emotion Research Centre.

In March, the School of Science presented a selection of its research projects on plant and wildlife ecology, industrial waste and aquatic toxicology. For a summary of the presentation, visit Environmental Science research at ACU.

The School of Allied Health will be presenting at the next Research Conversion on Thursday 22 May at 3:30 pm. The ACU Videoconference room venues are Melbourne campus – Rm 5.30; North Sydney campus – Tenison Woods House Lvl 16; Brisbane campus – Ac.22, Strathfield campus – Rm B; Canberra campus – Rm 110 and Ballarat campus – Rm 503.