Salut i Psicologia

Neuroscience and language disorder

Within this line of research, we are working on the following topics:

  • The study and modulation of the neural mechanisms underlying cognitive processes through non-invasive brain stimulation techniques.
  • The study of language acquisition, learning and processing in populations with typical and pathological development.
  • The acquisition of language, phonology, gestures and pragmatics.

Specific thesis projects offered inside of this line of research include the following: 

Thesis Proposals


Research Group

Language disorders

Language is one of the most important human abilities we learn from birth. However, there are some children that struggle in acquiring oral or written language. Most of them have differrent neurodevelopmental disorders such as Developmental Language Disorder (DLD), dyslexia or dysgraphia.
Technology, and particularly the use of technology to improve individuals' health and wellness, which is called Digital health, eHealth or mHealth provides a great opportunity to improve the detection, evaluation and intervention of these children. Thus, we have these research goals:
-Create, implement and evaluate digital solutions to improve the early detection of children with language disorders.
-Create, implement and evaluate more simply, less time-consuming and cheaper digital solutions for the assessment and diagnosis of language disorders.
-Create, implement and evaluate digital solutions to improve the treatment of children with language disorders based on neurorehabilitation and the observation of the progress with digital tools for parents, clinicians and educators.
We conduct experimental and clinical research using different methodologies with the collaboration of local, national and international partners.

Dr Llorenç Barrachina Andreu


Acquisition of oral language and communication in typical and atypical population

This line of research investigates how infants, children and adults use the sounds of a language  to express and comprehend meanings, and how they combine them with body gestures. Language is mainly an oral phenomenon, and we investigate this phenomenon from a multimodal and functional perspective: we focus on (1) how phonological abilities interact with other factors like body gestures and the development of pragmatics and (2) how individual linguistic, cognitive, and communicative skills impact language acquisition. 

We are currently working on the following main research questions (but any project related to the acquisition of phonology, gesture, and pragmatics in typical and clinical populations is welcomed): 
  • How speech and body gestures interact with each other in typically developing children, in children with communication or language disorders and in the acquisition of a second language?
  • Do early phonological trigger the development of pragmatic abilities and other future linguistic milestones?
  • How does multisensory input (acoustic, visual, tactile) contribute to the acquistion of language in specific populations? 
These research questions are answered using experimental methods such as eye-tracking, act-out tasks, or educational interventions. The PhD thesis will be carried out in collaboration with other members of the Research Group on Cognition and Language (GRECIL) at the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya, and with other national and international collaborators. 

Dr Núria Esteve Gibert


Intervention, evidence-based practice and development of language and communication disorders in childhood.

Children with communication and language disorders require evidence-based treatments and assessments, which can be delivered by on-site and on-line (i.e., telepractice) interventions, to fully progress in their life achievements. 

Moreover, best practices in speech therapy (also called logopedia, fonoaudiología, orthophonie or logopédie) in clinical and educational settings require of effective and efficient implementation practices taking into consideration clinical expertise, best evidences (external - scientific literature; internal – data and observations) and patient perspectives. 
Another interest of this research line is investigating gesture, pragmatic and language development and intervention (assessment and treatment) in early age populations (new born to 6 years) with typical development and neurodevelopmental conditions, such as autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and developmental language disorder (DLD; also called specific language impairment). 
This research line focuses on the following general research questions:
  1. Which are the best assessment and treatment practices delivered on-site and on-line to improve the condition of young children with language and communication disorders? 
  2. How can we improve assessment and treatments in speech therapy by implementing evidence-based practices?
  3. How do young children with or without neurodevelopmental disorders develop gesture, pragmatic and language abilities? And which are the best ways to assess and treat gesture, pragmatic and language abilities? 
This line of research is particularly interested in the following research and clinical approaches:
  • Dynamic assessment; standardized assessment; screening; assessment in educational and home contexts
  • Telepractice; videofeedback; synchronous and asynchronous modalities of intervention 
  • Narrative intervention; response-to-intervention practices
  • Evidence-based practice; clinical guidelines; evidence-based implementation
  • Multimodal discourse analysis; eye-tracking technique
  • Early intervention; pragmatic assessment and treatment

Dr Alfonso Igualada Pérez


Understanding language development mechanisms and how disturbances lead to outcome variability

The general objective of my research and the work I would supervise for PhD students is to advance the understanding of how children learn language and why language learning can happen at different speeds.

The methodologies encompass multiple ways of observing and measuring influences on child development, stemming from:

  1. Interacting internal influences (e.g. cognitive differences); and
  2. External influences (e.g. family environment).

Statistical methods are used to determine how children's early cognitive and social abilities (experimental, brain imaging) interact with the quality of the home and intervention environments (observation, health psychology methods).

Specific projects (students may offer alternative ideas within the general area):

Language and cognition in deaf children

Language development variability exists among children who are born deaf or hard of hearing (DHH), whether or not they have a cochlear implant. The majority of DHH children display age-appropriate spoken language development when compared to their hearing peers (Dettman et al., 2016). Despite this progress, some DHH children's language development remains variable. Indeed, it is estimated that around 30% of children still experience delays (Bruijnzeel, Ziylan, Stegeman, Topsakal & Grolman, 2016). Research studies report that these problems are also apparent in more complex areas of language and during more demanding cognitive tasks (Geers et al., 2009). Increased difficulties with higher-load tasks suggest that cognitive abilities supporting language development are also variable in DHH infants (Edwards & Isquith, 2020).

The PhD study will test the communication-scaffolding hypothesis (Morgan, Curtin & Bottin, 2021) and ask two main questions:

1. Is language development mediated by pre-implant parent interaction and EEG synchronicity recordings?

2. Is language development mediated by pre-implant measures of cognitive and social abilities?

Language and cognition in looked after children

Looked after children (LAC) are in the care of social services and live in a range of out-of-home care settings, e.g. foster homes or residential institutions (Milligan et al., 2016). Although LAC are considered one of the most vulnerable groups in society, relatively little is known about their language and cognitive differences. In Spain, studies by Moreno-Manso and colleagues (2009, 2010, 2015, 2016) include language assessments in their screening. The LAC in these studies were in the care of a social service because they had experienced abuse and/or neglect at home and were residing in residential settings. The research looked at wider language and cognitive skills and found difficulties in 30 to 50% of the sample. Little is known about the mechanisms whereby risk and protective factors interact to produce these outcomes.

The PhD study will test the communication-scaffolding hypothesis (Morgan, Curtin & Bottin, 2021) and ask two main questions:

1. Is language and cognitive development mediated by neglect before going into care?

2. Does care setting (adoption vs institution) mediate language and cognitive development?

The PhD thesis will be carried out in collaboration with other members of the Cognition and Language Research Group (GRECIL) at the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya and the University of Barcelona, and with other national and international collaborators. 

Prof. Gary Morgan


Emotional regulation and development in children with neurodevelopmental disorders and their families

The world of emotions and emotional regulation is complex, still full of unknowns as far as research is concerned. However, the new diagnostic approach to neurodevelopmental and learning disorders has broadened our framework of understanding of these disorders. In this framework, socio-emotional difficulties prove key in furthering our knowledge of the disorders' impact on the lives of children with them. This research line proposes a comprehensive approach to the disorders in which the children's families play an important and active part. We aim to better understand the emotional regulation difficulties suffered by patients' families, as well as the emotions and difficulties they face throughout the process of finding professional help and securing a diagnosis and treatment.
Main questions:
Are emotional well-being and mental health problems associated with neurodevelopmental and learning disorders?
How do these disorders impact the emotional, behavioural and social spheres of children and their families?
How are emotional well-being and mental health problems evaluated by educational services' professional teams?
Answers to these research questions are sought using experimental methods such as eye-tracking, act-out tasks and educational interventions.
The PhD thesis will be carried out in collaboration with other members of the Cognition and Language Research Group (GRECIL) at the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya and the University of Barcelona, and with other national and international collaborators.

Dr Nadia Ahufinger


Inclusion of the feminist perspective in the identification and assessment of children with learning and language difficulties and related interventions

It is important to bear in mind that the science has been developed within an androcentric and patriarchal system and has therefore incorporated sexist bias in the different stages of the research process. There is a lack of studies with a feminist perspective on neurodevelopmental and learning disorders analysing, for example, the social and cultural aspects associated with sexist stereotypes fostering a bias towards a greater detection of boys and underdiagnosis of girls. In this regard, we want to incorporate methodologies tailor-made for assessing sex and gender variables and their interactions. This could help improve our understanding of the role of the differences between boys and girls in their development, and permit the use of resources and interventions better tuned to the profile in question. 
Main questions:
Do neurodevelopmental and learning disorders manifest equally in boys and girls?
What do we know about the biological differences of sexes in relation to these disorders?
What role does socialization based on sexist stereotypes play in these disorders?
Does neurodevelopmental disorder research consider the differences between boys and girls?
This research line attempts to answer all these questions through literature reviews and experimental studies.
The PhD thesis will be carried out in collaboration with other members of the Cognition and Language Research Group (GRECIL) at the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya and the University of Barcelona, and with other national and international collaborators.

Dr Nadia Ahufinger

Clinical Neuropsychology and Applied Neuroscience: brain injury
The Clinical Neuropsychology and Applied Neuroscience research line is focused on the study of the neural mechanisms underlying different pathologies that present an abnormal or altered brain functioning. We also focus on the use of non invasive brain stimulation techniques as a therapeutic approach to improve, stimulate and rehabilitate cognitive functions in neurodegenerative disease (mainly Alzheimer’s disease) and in acquired brain injury (traumatic brain injury and stroke).

Dr Elena Muñoz Marrón

Reduction of nicotine addiction through non-invasive brain stimulation techniques 
Nicotine addiction is often characterized by dysfunctional cognitive control, an uncontrolled reward impulse and an altered decision-making process. Transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) can be used to increase self-control in habitual tobacco users, reducing anxiety caused by abstinence and giving up nicotine consumption. This technique has already been successfully used to reduce craving and tobacco consumption, but the optimal parameters to implement it as a common treatment are yet to be established. Our main goal is to improve tDCS treatment parameters used to help smoking cessation.

Dr Elena Muñoz Marrón

Cognitive NeuroLab

The effect of background music  on memory and learning in patients with cognitive decline and dementia

Several studies have provided evidence that music therapy may be useful for behavioural symptoms related to dementia, however, there is scarce evidence concerning its positive effects on cognition (Van der Steen et al., 2018). Nevertheless, recent evidence in healthy older adults indicates that exposure to music (as background) may improve performance while people are learning new information and/or retrieving stored information (see Ferreri et al.’s studies). 
The main aim of this research line is to investigate whether background music acts as a long-term memory enhancer in people with Alzheimer’s disease and Mild Cognitive Impairment, as being arguably the most affected cognitive ability of these two neurodegenerative diseases. 
Specifically, this research aims at investigating if background music: 
a. is a way of affording efficient strategies to bind new information to learning contexts (context-dependent memory);
b. modulates arousal and emotion and this in turn reinforces memory traces during encoding and consolidation. 
Musical preferences will be also explored in order to disentangle the role of individual factors in modulating music-induced effects on memory and learning. 
Funding: ‘The Mozart Effect on memory in patients with cognitive decline’ (PID2020-118672RB-I00, Agencia Estatal de Investigación España)

Dr Marco Calabria

Cognitive NeuroLab

Neuropsychology of speech production and language control in bilingual individuals 

One of the remarkable abilities of bilinguals is to be able to continuously control the use of the two languages. This requires the selection and monitoring of the intended language to speak while avoiding interference of the non-selected one. The efficiency of these cognitive and linguistic abilities depends on the integrity of the underlying bilingual language control network (Calabria et al., 2018). Therefore, any brain lesion (being from neurodegenerative or cerebrovascular diseases) may affect the communication skills of bilingual speakers or result in mixing up the two languages.
This research lines aims at investigating:
a. how acquired brain damage may impair within- and between-language skills in speech production at different linguistic levels (semantics, lexicon, and phonology);
b. non-linguistic control deficits (switching, updating, and monitoring) may be associated with speech disorders.
Cognitive neuropsychological methodology (single-case or group studies) and psycholinguistic approaches will be employed to answer these research questions.

Dr Marco Calabria

Cognitive NeuroLab
Neural basis of cognitive control
This research line is focused on the study of the involvement and functional dissociation of the dorsolateral and ventrolateral prefrontal cortices in different cognitive processes.
In particular, cognitive control involves the activation of two main neural systems with differentiated functions: a dorsal system, which includes the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, and a ventral system, which includes the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex.
This line of research aims to deepen the understanding of the dissociation and interaction of these two systems through the application of Non-Invasive Brain Stimulation Techniques (NIBS). We are particularly interested in characterizing the neural bases of three processes related to cognitive control:
Emotional interference on working memory
Risk-based decision-making
Reward and addiction
Numerical cognition and cognitive control
Cognitive NeuroLab
Bringing visibility and support to autism in women at all stages of life
Autism in women is associated with high socio-emotional vulnerability. However, women face complex access barriers to detection, diagnosis and therapeutic support due to their different psychopathological autistic profile and the difficulty for professionals to recognize these characteristics. Assessment procedures and instruments do not adequately integrate the specificity of the phenotypic expression of autism in women and underestimate its characteristics. This results in a disproportionately high risk of women being undiagnosed, misdiagnosed or diagnosed significantly later than men, with serious and multi-level consequences: poorer quality of life, worse prognosis and chronicity of associated psychological and physical health problems, social exclusion and victimization, and difficulties in school retention and access to employment. At the root of the problem is an androcentric perspective in the study of autism that renders the female collective invisible.
This line of research focuses on (1) the development and adaptation of detection and assessment tools that are sensitive to the phenotypic characteristics of autism in women at all stages of life; and (2) research into the specific needs and challenges associated with autism in women in order to reduce underdetection and misdiagnosis and to facilitate access to diagnosis and support services that help to improve the quality of life of this population group.
We are currently working on the following key research questions, but other proposals relating to autism detection and support for girls, adolescents and adult women will be considered:
- Which characteristics of autism are more relevant or distinctive at different stages of women's development (childhood; early, middle and late adolescence; and adulthood)?
- What emotional and behavioural challenges do women with autism face throughout their lives? What differences are there compared to women without autism?
- Could a new evidence-based screening tool with a developmental perspective be psychometrically robust and contribute to improving the detection of autism in Spanish girls, adolescents and women?
- How can autistic camouflaging behaviours influence the likelihood of detection?
- The PhD thesis will be carried out in collaboration with other researchers at the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya and with other national and international collaborators. 

Dr Núria Esteve Gibert


Dr Paula Morales Hidalgo