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Home / Highlights from the British Neuropsychological Society (BNS) Autumn Meeting
By Natalia Masztalerz, Brainkind’s Assistant Psychologist (Outcome Measures)
The theme for this two-day conference was neurodiversity, with a special focus on developmental neurodiversity, open science, and future directions of neuropsychology.
After a warm welcome from the president of the BNS, Professor Nicky Edelstyn, an exceptional range of speakers gave comprehensive and accessible updates on their recent work. Some of the key points from the meeting were the transdiagnostic revolution that has been shaping the way in which we understand brain function and mental illness, and the debate regarding implications for standardised neuropsychological testing.
Transdiagnostic approaches shift the focus on common symptoms shared across diagnoses, so that the interventions we create or improve have the potential to help a wider group of people, irrespectively of their diagnoses. For example, an intervention to improve attention control may help both people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and autism, both of whom may experience these difficulties.
This was emphasized by Dr Edwin Burns’ thought-provoking talk on patients presenting with developmental prosopagnosia who are missed when using the test score cut-offs for cognitive disorder recommended in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).
Individuals affected by prosopagnosia struggle to recognise faces. In Dr Burns’ recent study , 38% of people who reported struggling with this area in their lives did not meet the criteria for a cognitive disorder when using the guidance within the DSM-5. Dr Burns emphasized how his results demonstrated the importance of ecological validity of cognitive assessments in capturing information that remains meaningful beyond test conditions, as the outcome of standardised assessments for his “high scoring” participants was not reflective of people’s daily struggles.
This conclusion closely linked with Professor Sarah MacPherson and colleagues’ work on developing cognitive assessments using virtual reality and comparing performance on these with more traditional computer-based assessments . Her team has developed a number of strategies to reduce cybersickness using joyful and calming music, finding that joyful music in particular, helped reduce nausea and overall intensity of symptoms. They also found that computing and gaming experience were substantial factors influencing cybersickness.
Performance on the tests created in “The Virtual Reality Everyday Assessment Laboratory” (VR-EAL) was significantly correlated with performance on traditional tests, validating their suitability for use in the assessment of healthy people.
Of course, reflecting current times, technology was present front-and-centre in the meeting. Several presenters spoke about using machine learning to support in their data analyses, with one project presented by Dr Mole concentrating on his work with Professor Cipolloti and colleagues.
The team used GPT-3 to support their mapping of phonemic fluency in people with focal lesions, and to investigate the types of errors made to create characteristic profiles that can be used to predict the location of lesions . Machine learning was found to add predictive power to the models generated, demonstrating GPT-3’s analytic value. A talk by Dr Bourke on increasing access to neuroimaging in low-resource areas in Africa using Hyperfine – a portable MRI that takes up as much energy as a Nespresso coffee machine to operate – also stood out amongst presentations exploring new technologies .
The talk that struck me the most was delivered by Professor Faraneh Vargha-Khadem, explaining how her interest into developmental amnesia (DA) originated, her involvement in current research on hippocampal atrophy, and her reflections on the current political climate across the world. People with DA have severe difficulties in remembering events in their daily life .
Professor Vargha-Khadem’s passion for her job, empathy, and care for her patients was palpable from her talk, during which she emphasized the importance of patients’ intrinsic motivation on their outcomes, beyond their environment and genetic predisposition.
This especially rings true for people with DA, who can often be misunderstood by those around them and described as “friendly but aloof”, “absent-minded”, or “lazy” when in fact these differences are due to the specific and substantially different functioning of their brain.
For instance, people with DA do not have a concept of recollection, mental imagery, or auditory memory, so they don’t know what it’s like to reminisce or mentally visualise, and they do not hear a “voice in their head” when reading. The quote “They’re not stuck in the present. They operate in the present.” when explaining the daily challenges of people with this condition, characterises their distinct reality, and exemplifies Professor Vargha-Khadem’s compassionate attitude, a perspective that I will certainly not forget in future practice.
Reflecting on this conference, I am grateful to have had the opportunity to attend the BNS meeting, listen to some of the leaders in the field, and ask questions about their work. This snippet of how far the field of neuropsychology has expanded, and how much we still don’t know, has truly inspired my imagination and curiosity. I can’t wait to see where we go next.
The programme of the Autumn Meeting, and information about forthcoming BNS meetings, can be found on their webpage.