Research

The AIR group is conducting research on 3 key areas: (1) Impulsivity assessment; (2) Substance use disorders; and (3) Obesity and eating disorders.

We have designed and are currently investigating an online tool to measure impulsivity and predict impulsive behaviours in real time – the Cognitive Impulsivity Suite (CIS). We are developing cognitive phenotyping tools and computational models to understand individual and social decision-making in addictive and personality disorders. And we have created new neuroimaging techniques to understand the neural and physiological drivers of food choices in vivo.

Areas of research/projects:

Mapping Impulsivity Online with the Cognitive Impulsivity Suite (CIS)

Can we measure the mental processes that lead to impulsive behaviours? Can we use them to predict when someone is going to behave impulsively? We have designed the CIS, a brief, online, unified test of the cognitive mechanisms of impulsive behaviour to address these questions. We have shown that the CIS can be reliably administered online, and capture impulsive behaviour on the fly. The CIS automatically generates performance indices that correlate with impulsive tendencies and risky behaviours such as problem drinking and illicit drug use. In the future, we want to use it to predict and prevent impulsive behaviours that can cause harm to ourselves or others.

Food Choices: The interface between subjective preferences and nutrient sensing

Food choices are driven by a combination of subjective preferences and physiological reactions to nutrient intake. We developed the Choice-Gustometer to present and deliver real food choices inside the MRI scanner. It allows us to synchronously investigate the neural underpinnings of preference formation and nutrient sensing. We are using the Gustometer to investigate the neural bases of unhealthy food choices among people with obesity, as well as other projects about the addictive properties of certain combinations of nutrients, food craving, and the link between binge drinking and binge eating.

Computational models of decision-making in methamphetamine addiction

Why does a person continue to use drugs like methamphetamine after experiencing the dramatic negative consequences it can have on their lives? We are applying computational modelling to unravel the drivers of aberrant decision-making in people with methamphetamine use disorder. This involves transforming psychological theories into mathematical equations, which are then applied to the behaviour of people with methamphetamine addiction. We aim to provide specific cognitive profiling information to those experiencing methamphetamine-related problems and their clinicians, allowing a greater evidence base for novel treatment interventions.

Social decision-making in the comorbidity between borderline personality and substance use disorders

Substance use disorders (SUD) and borderline personality disorder (BPD) often co-occur, but the clinical presentation of this comorbidity is incredibly heterogeneous, and thus complex to tackle. Our research is focussed on understanding how this heterogeneity influences the way people with BPD and/or SUD interpret social signals, make social decisions, and interact with others. These skills are critical to repair relationships and regain adaptive functioning in the path to recovery. We are applying novel theories and multidimensional clustering techniques to identify subgroups of people with BPD and/or SUD based on their personality trait profiles, and linking these profiles to specific patterns of social interaction and decision-making. We also look at whether these differences are relevant to therapeutic outcomes and real-life social functioning. This research will revolutionalise the understanding and treatment of patients with BPD and SUD.

The akratic window of behaviour change

There is a philosophical debate on whether it is possible to be weak-willed (akratic). That is, can people act contrary to their better (evaluative) judgment? We are interested in studying cases where people may judge that what they choose to do is not the best course of action, due to them succumbing to temptation. This would allow us to identify whether temptation changes evaluative judgment, or leads people to stray from their evaluative judgment. Gaining more insight in the relationship between evaluative judgment and choices is essential to provide a guide to behaviour change. If people occasionally do not choose according to their evaluative judgment, interventions aimed at changing evaluative judgment and/or improving self-control are needed for behaviour change.

Goal Management Training for Methamphetamine Addiction (GMT4MA)

Methamphetamine use disorder is associated with deficits in executive functions – the cognitive processes that orchestrate goal-oriented behaviour. These cognitive deficits are predictive of poorer treatment outcomes including high levels of relapse. Goal Management Training (GMT), originally designed for individuals with brain injury, is an evidence-based intervention for executive dysfunction. We have repackaged this program, now GMT+, to improve relevance and engagement for methamphetamine users in Australia.  We collaborated with health design experts and consumers to develop a person-centred, targeted and uplifting intervention package. We will now run a proof-of-concept clinical trial to assess the feasibility and acceptability of GMT+, and its effectiveness at improving cognitive and clinical outcomes in methamphetamine addiction.

MiSmartHeart

This project aims to apply persuasive technology to improve health outcomes of people who have had a heart attack (myocardial infarction) after hospital discharge. The first phase of this project is a participatory study in which we consult patients, doctors, nurses, and other health professionals to understand the required functions and recommended features of a digital health solution for supporting behaviour change after hospitalisation for myocardial infarction. We envisage to use artificial intelligence for providing the best educational information, medication tracking, and compliance/adherence advice to the consumers. The second phase of the study will assess the effectiveness of this solution through a clinical trial.

Immersive Episodic Future Thinking

To see through the COVID19 crisis, we need effective strategies to make future-oriented decisions and promote wellbeing as individuals and societies. Neuroscience research discovered that when we imagine the future with the same level of detail and affective quality that we remember the past, we tend to make more future-oriented decisions (e.g. staying home to protect others). Episodic future thinking (EFT) is a prospection-based training that stimulates this ability and has shown to improve future-oriented choices while simultaneously reducing anxiety about the future. Our team is currently working on two ways to improve the effectiveness and scalability of EFT: (1) building an immersive virtual reality (VR) scenario to facilitate imagining the future with sufficient detail and infusing it with positive emotions; (2) exploring the potential of collective EFT (imagining the future together) via VR communities. Funding this research will provide the evidence base for a neuroscience-informed intervention that can promote long-term based decisions and build resilience in the COVID19 era.