The word psychology stems from Greek roots: “psyche” means soul or spirit; “logia” means “study of”. Psychology is the academic discipline that studies the mind and behaviour. At NCI, many different facets of psychology are explored, including biological, clinical, developmental, educational, comparative, evolutionary, and social and industrial psychology. The lecturers are all active researchers across these disciplines. We will share insight into some of this research in coming blogposts.
Psychology, which is offered both part-time and full-time at National College of Ireland, is one of our most popular courses areas. Dr. David Mothersill is a Programme Director and Lecturer in Psychology at NCI, and a researcher in the area of neuroimaging and mental health. Here he fills us in on some of his current research, which shows a link between the immune system and brain function.
What is social cognition and why is it important?
Social cognition is our ability to understand the thoughts, feelings, and perspectives of other people. For example, understanding how someone is feeling from reading their facial expressions or tone of voice. Social cognition helps us to understand other people and plays an important role in how we act when we are around others. Our new research provides evidence that the immune system affects how the brain responds to social stimuli such as facial expressions.
What is the relationship between the immune system and social cognition?
When an immune response is triggered, one of the things that occurs is release of chemicals called cytokines. Some cytokines cause inflammation, which is one of the ways the body fights infection. Our research group has recently shown that a cytokine called interleukin 6 (IL-6) has been associated with lower ability to recognise emotions from facial expressions in a psychological task (this is, when we ask a participant to complete a particular action and/or react to a specific stimulus, in this case facial expressions). In our new paper, we report evidence that IL-6 is also associated with changes in the way the brain responds to facial displays of emotion.
In recent months, a lot of people talk about ‘doing their own research’ in relation to Covid-19 – can you outline what was involved in your research?
This research is part of a multidisciplinary Irish-led project called Immune Response and Social Cognition in Schizophrenia (iRELATE), which is led by Prof. Gary Donohoe and colleagues in National University of Ireland Galway (NUIG) and funded by a € 1.5 million grant from the European Research Council, with additional funding from Science Foundation Ireland. A team of over 15 experts from NUIG, National College of Ireland, Trinity College Dublin, and Kings College London contribute to this research, which has been ongoing for over five years now and has much still to do.
My role in this research involves functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, which uses a large magnet and radio waves to take pictures of the brain while a person is performing a psychological task. Over 200 participants watched videos of actors putting on different facial expressions during their MRI scan, and we examined brain activation during the task, and whether this was associated with levels of IL-6 measured from blood samples taken before the scan and analysed in a lab.
The paper on our research was then peer-reviewed before publication, it's available to read in full here.
Why is this research important?
For the past number of years my research has been focused on improving outcomes for people with schizophrenia, a mental health condition that affects about 3,900 people in Ireland. This particular piece of research contributes to a growing literature that suggests a relationship between the immune system and cognitive function. A better understanding of this relationship might help us develop novel therapies.
What are you currently working on?
One project currently reaching completion aims to make future research studies easier to administrate and more useful. Many of the psychological tasks used to examine social cognition require administration by a trained researcher or psychologist, and rely on unrealistic stimuli, such as cartoon characters. To address these challenges, we have recently developed an App that can be easily administered through a touch-screen interface and uses video of actors interacting realistically. We aim to release this App later this year for researchers in the field to download and use free of charge.
Interested in study psychology at NCI? Visit our part-time and full-time psychology course pages to review the modules, the entry requirements, how to apply and more. You can also visit the psychology department hub on our website to learn more about studying this fascinating subject at NCI.