Precision Imaging Beacon
Caitlin Smith has a background in Psychology and Cognitive Neuroscience and is commencing a PhD studentship under the Precision Imaging Beacon of Excellence. Her project uses multimodal imaging and brain stimulation to investigate the role of neurophysiological inhibition on somatomotor mapping in Tourette’s syndrome and the relationship to the altered processing of sensory information experienced in the disorder.
How would you explain your research?
My research project will involve the use of multimodal brain imaging and brain stimulation to investigate neurophysiological inhibition and cortical motor representations in individual’s with Tourette’s syndrome (TS) and how these may be related to experiences of altered sensory processing and interoception. Examples of this altered sensory processing include uncomfortable sensations prior to tics (known as premonitory urges) and hypersensitivity to external sensory information, both of which can cause significant discomfort. Previous research in healthy individuals has indicated that greater physiological inhibition is related to finer touch acuity – this relationship is suggested to be mediated by more selective tuning of cortical activity and cortical mapping of muscles. Therefore, impairments in GABAergic physiological inhibition observed in individual’s with TS may be associated with this altered processing of sensory information due to greater dispersion of activity and motor representations in the cortex. This will be investigated with multimodal imaging techniques, such as functional MRI and GABA-edited MR spectroscopy, transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) and psychophysical measures of sensory processing. Interventions aimed at manipulating motor maps, such as repetitive forms of TMS, and its influence on sensory processing will also be explored as a potential therapeutic intervention.
Why Nottingham and why the Precision Imaging Beacon?
The University of Nottingham is a world-leading research institution, with internationally renowned researchers, and produces cutting-edge and impactful research of extremely high quality. The opportunity to work on an interdisciplinary research project within the Precision Imaging Beacon at Nottingham allows me to gain valuable insight from a multitude of perspectives by interacting with experts across multiple domains and specialities from mathematicians and physicists to clinical neuroscientists. This is an inspirational environment that I aspire to be a part of and provides the optimal environment for the development of my skills and expertise as a scientist.
What inspired you to pursue this area?
I first came across TMS research in movement disorders early into my undergraduate degree and was interested in the therapeutic promise of this relatively novel technique. Furthermore, during a research internship, observing how non-invasive brain stimulation can help to relieve distress and discomfort caused by motor tics was truly remarkable. There are many unanswered questions regarding the neurophysiological mechanisms behind TS and how these relate to the somatic experiences and discomfort that individual’s with TS experience. Therefore, the potential of neuroimaging and TMS in providing important solutions to neurodevelopmental and movement disorders is perfect for me to start exploring more about these techniques and movement disorders.
Researching further into the neurophysiological basis of TS and its relationship to the unique somatosensory processing and discomfort that individual’s with TS experience will help to guide therapeutic interventions...
How will your research affect the average person?
Researching further into the neurophysiological basis of TS and its relationship to the unique somatosensory processing and discomfort that individual’s with TS experience will help to guide therapeutic interventions that may hold promise in alleviating these negative experiences, which have not been explored in depth. Moreover, if informed intervention methods (such as non-invasive brain stimulation) can alter sensory processing and relieve discomfort, this would give way to novel therapeutic techniques other than drug interventions which are likely to be complicated by factors such as side effects and comorbid disorders.
What’s been the greatest moment of your career so far?
Gaining experience in cognitive neuroscientific research during an internship within the University of Nottingham and completing my 3rd year undergraduate project using TMS and MRI have greatly enhanced my knowledge and sparked my interest into how these techniques can be used as investigative and therapeutic tools. Further to this, gaining a 1st class and receiving the John Newson prize from the School of Psychology for this project has given me confidence and intensified my aspirations to pursue a career in movement research.
How will being based at UoN and joining Precision Imaging help you achieve your goals?
The Precision Imaging Beacon of Excellence supports the diagnosis and personalised treatment to chronic physical and mental health conditions that lack adequate diagnosis, management, and treatment. This offers the optimal environment and support for TS research as the underlying mechanisms behind TS are unclear and personalised treatment is essential for the variability of symptoms characterising TS. Moreover, the unique and integrative collaboration of experts across a variety of fields within Precision Imaging is essential to the multimodal aspect of this project and enhancing the quality of research. It will also allow me to gain significant experience in using these techniques from a range of experts.
What aspects of your research and role are you looking forward to?
I am looking forward to becoming more experienced with TMS and neuroimaging and learning more about what goes into analysis of this particular data – data and statistical analyses is a specific aspect I am striving to become more proficient in. I am also excited about the prospect of conducting my own research and adding to the current knowledge, which could help to answer questions regarding the basis of uncomfortable somatic sensations experienced in TS.