ECP's Dr. Armando Bertone: Making Sense of Sensations

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(the following extract is from Dialogues, newsletter of the Department of Educational and Counselling Psychology, McGill University, Faculty of Education, spring 2016 edition)


Making sense of sensations : How do perception and cognition influence behaviour?
 

It started during an undergraduate Sensation and Perception class when a curious psychology student was exposed to rudimentary explanations of how our sensory systems create personalized, internal representations of a shared external world. He was amazed at how these systems seamlessly transform the physical energies of our environment into veridical experiences upon which we base our behaviours. This was all it took for Dr. Bertone to initiate a career-long research interest in the interplay between perception, cognition and behaviour throughout typical and atypical development. Over the last ten years, Dr. Bertone has worked to understand sensory-related abilities across various neurodevelopmental conditions. This knowledge has been applied towards developing research programs that address important questions in the fields of school psychology, developmental psychology, cognitive neuroscience, and clinical neuropsychology.

Dr. Armando Bertone is a William Dawson Scholar and Assistant Professor in the Department Educational and Counselling Psychology at McGill University.  He honed his research skills as a Master’s student in Experimental Psychology at Concordia University, where he trained as a visual psychophysicist and studied the basic mechanisms underlying visual motion perception. Dr. Bertone went on to complete a doctoral degree in Clinical Neuropsychology at l’Université de Montréal. During this time, he used his knowledge of basic sensory mechanisms to define and understand sensory-based strengths and challenges in children and adolescents with Autism and Fragile-x syndrome. Dr. Bertone is currently the director of the Perceptual Neuroscience Lab (PNLab.ca) for Autism and Development, where he leads both laboratory- and school-based research programs, defined by the multidisciplinary integration of basic and applied research. The long-term aim of this work is to improve the efficacy of existing cognitive and behavioural interventions in Autism and other neurodevelopmental (i.e., learning, AHDH) conditions.

Dr. Bertone’s clinical training has greatly influenced how he approaches research. For example, as a neuropsychologist, he was trained to define a patient’s cognitive profile as part of a neuropsychological assessment, using performances on cognitive tests that targeted specific domains of functioning (i.e., language, executive functioning etc.). Drawing upon this clinical approach, Dr. Bertone sought to define the neural underpinnings of sensory differences in Autism and related conditions. He did so using simple tasks that target specific domains of sensory abilities, which he coined perceptual profiles (Bertone et al., 2010). He demonstrated that perceptual profiles are often condition-specific and therefore, can be used to dissociate the neural etiologies of different patient populations, even when they share similar behavioural symptomology. In essence, he was able to differentiate two conditions based on their perceptual profiles, and forward hypotheses specific to each population. The two seminal papers outlining these profiles have been cited hundreds of times (Bertone et al., 2003, 2005) and have been very influential in the field of clinical neuroscience.

Building on this foundational work, Dr. Bertone has refined his hypotheses using behavioural and imaging approaches. Recently published studies from Dr. Bertone’s group have shown that adolescents and adults with Autism are more sensitive to detailed visual information. For example, individuals with ASD are better able to detect the finer lines on the right side of this figure than typically-developing individuals. This type of information is very simple and non-social in nature. One may ask : why is this important?  In order to understand the origin of sensory differences in Autism and how they are related to social difficulties, it is important to assess how information is processed at its earliest stages. If the most basic visual information is processed atypically, this will effect higher-levels perception more closely associated with behaviour.

One such example of higher-level perception is face perception. Not surprisingly, the manner with which individuals with Autism perceive faces and emotions is one of the most densely researched areas in Autism. This interest stems largely from the fact that Autism is characterized by social and communicative impairments. Given the atypical sensory issues previously mentioned, the question then becomes: Is atypical face perception – used as a visual metric for socio-communicative abilities in Autism - a reflection of altered socio-communicative behaviour/Autism, or does it have a non-social origin, perceptual origin? Dr. Bertone’s lab has started to answer this question, showing that altered face perception has an early sensory, rather than social origin in adolescents and adults. However, it remains unclear whether this association is present earlier in development. In fact, this is considered to be a very significant void in the literature.

Dr. Bertone and his team was awarded a CIHR operating grant to specifically address this research question within a developmental context. A variety of methods (i.e., eye-tracking, electrophysiology, behavioural, clinical, etc.) will be used to define the developmental trajectories of elementary and social sensory abilities in children with Autism from the age of 4 through 15 years. Using an accelerated longitudinal design, Dr. Bertone’s team will be able to assess whether temporal associations between basic and social information processing exist throughout development. This will allow his group to address whether social difficulties originate from the altered development of basic information processing, assess how and when basic sensory and social abilities deviate from those typically developing children, and if these deviations are related to cognitive and/or clinical profiles at different periods of development. Knowledge gained from this research program will have major clinical consequences, as it will be incorporated into existing cognitive and behavioural interventions and used to develop new methods that target perceptual strengths and challenges. Furthermore, it will provide critical information to determine whether there is a true link between basic sensory abilities and atypical social cognition and behaviour in Autism. If this is the case, interventions could target sensory abilities (i.e., perceptual learning techniques, multi-modal learning, etc.) rather than focusing solely on social behaviour, such as eye-gaze or emotion recognition. The importance for understanding and recognizing Autism’s non-social sensory behaviour has recently been reflected by the increased weight put on non-social diagnostic criteria in the recently published DSM 5.

Since his appointment, Dr. Bertone had developed a research program that extended the PNLab’s experimental and clinical expertise into educational settings. After numerous meetings with stakeholders, school administrators, professionals and teachers, similar concerns kept surfacing : attention, concentration and self-regulation. Staying on-task during classroom activities was a concern shared by all, particularly for children with developmental and/or behavioural issues. Undeniably, the ability to focus on material for even brief periods of time plays a crucial role in a student’s ability to absorb classroom material and incorporate this knowledge during learning. In the modern-day classroom, students must maintain their attention long enough for information to become integrated in their learning process, while at the same time distributing their attention to the multiple components of the lesson plan itself. The modern classroom is truly a dynamic environment where students must keep up with the flow of information being presented to them.

Many computer-based training programs are presently available to train attention in children, adolescents and adults with or without attention difficulties. However, Dr. Bertone and his team have learned that cognitive remediation programs geared towards children with special needs need to be targeted, accessible and adaptable. With this in mind, the PNLab has been using and adapted Multiple Object Tracking (MOT) called NeuroTracker. As seen in the figure, children are asked to follow or track a set of moving spheres among others moving within a three-dimensional space. It is specifically designed to target the main components of attention; selective, sustained, distributed, and dynamic. The task is also accessible to children of different ages and developmental levels, as it is a simple and intuitive. In addition, the task and training schedule can be adapted to the child’s ability to maximize their progress and motivation. Finally, the NeuroTracker differs from other approaches because it is non-verbal in nature and purely sensory-based. Importantly, it is a task that does not involve any social pretence, which is advantageous when working with children with language, cognitive and especially, socio-communicative challenges, as is the case with Autism.

The PNLab is conducting this research in partnership with two schools. The first is Summit School, a Montreal-based school that provides services to students with special needs. The second school is l’École Samuel de Champlain, a mainstream public high-school in the Quebec City region that also provides specialized services to students with language and learning disorders. The first objective of Dr. Bertone’s research program is to assess whether in-classroom training and improvement on the MOT task results in improved performance on other tests of attention, an result referred to as near-transfer. Indeed, results reveal that 5-10 minutes of in-classroom training 4 times a week results in near-transfer for a majority of children. Dr. Bertone and his research team are now assessing whether such improved abilities result in improvements on academic performance, such as math skills, language abilities and self-regulatory behaviours. In addition, the efficacy of the intervention is being assessed for children with different strengths and challenges, including students with ADHD, specific learning conditions, developmental delay and Autism.

In conclusion, the PNLab would like to thank the administrators and staff at both Summit School and l’École Samuel de Champlain for their unwavering support. They have been extremely generous with their time, energy and knowledge. We are also grateful to all participating children and families for making this research possible, and most importantly, enjoyable.  

[view Dialogues, newsletter of the Department of Educational and Counselling Psychology, spring 2016 edition]