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Lead supervisor: Prof Gaia Scerif, Department of Experimental Psychology, Oxford

Co-supervisor: Dr Karla HolmboeDepartment of Experimental Psychology, Oxford

Commercial partner: Gowerlabs Ltd, London


Background: Functional Near-Infrared Spectroscopy (fNIRS) is a relatively new optical imaging technique that enables non-invasive assessment of functional brain activation outside a scanner environment. Given its spatial resolution and the ease of obtaining neural data, fNIRS is rapidly becoming one of the preferred methods to study young children’s functional brain development (e.g., Lloyd-Fox et al., 2010; Wilcox & Biondi, 2015). However, during the first few years of life, both the skull and brain undergo major structural changes. At present, very limited knowledge exists on how fNIRS technical parameters need to be optimised to provide the best assessment of early cortical function.

Aims: The successful candidate will work with Gowerlabs Ltd., one of the world’s leading optical imaging companies, and two experts on early cognitive development in the Department of Experimental Psychology (Prof. Scerif & Dr. Holmboe) to address both this knowledge gap and to improve further Gowerlabs’ NTS NIRS system. Furthermore, although fNIRS has much better spatial localisation than electroencephalography (EEG), it has low temporal resolution, meaning that it is difficult to pinpoint the timing of different cognitive processing steps in relation to brain functioning. The successful candidate will therefore also work on integrating portable EEG with fNIRS and on optimising both systems for assessment of young children.

Gowerlabs Ltd. have carried out cutting-edge work on array design (Brigadoi et al., 2018) and are currently developing a wireless fNIRS system. The company will work with the selected iCASE student to further improve fNIRS measurement across early childhood (approx. 10 months to 5 years) through fine-tuning of the current system, cap and sensor development, testing the new wireless system, and integration with wireless EEG.

Potential long-term impacts: The development of robust and reliable assessment of neural and cognitive functions in young children is pivotal to the MRC’s mission statement and focus on mental and cognitive health. While a wealth of tools is available to scientists investigating individuals from late childhood, there is a relative dearth of methods targeting the assessment of brain function in young children. Optimising tools such as fNIRS, in conjunction with the development of well-validated cognitive paradigms (e.g., attention, cognitive control, memory), will in the long term allow the identification of important neurocognitive markers of both typical and atypical development from a younger age than is feasible at present.

Benefits to the student: This MRC iCASE studentship provides an excellent opportunity to carry out developmental cognitive neuroscience research in a strong academic environment as well as initiating a long-term collaboration with Gowerlabs Ltd. The Department of Experimental Psychology (EP) has an NTS NIRS system available, and Dr. Holmboe currently uses the system with infants and toddlers in her ongoing MRC-funded project. Dr. Holmboe specialises in early cognitive development, in particular within the domain of executive functions (working memory, inhibitory control, cognitive flexibility), whereas Prof. Scerif specialises in the neural correlates of typical and atypical attention development. Both have extensive experience carrying out and leading neurocognitive research with young children. The close collaboration with Gowerlabs will therefore allow sophisticated methods development applicable to ongoing research on cognitive development within EP.

The student will have access to testing facilities and established recruitment mechanisms within the Centre for Developmental Science in EP. They will benefit from direct training by Prof. Scerif and Dr. Holmboe’s teams, including training in infant, toddler and child cognitive testing and EEG and fNIRS data collection. As EP’s state-of-the-art testing facilities are fully integrated in one of the largest groups of developmental scientists in the UK, the student will also benefit from regular interactions with extended teams. These teams share interests and organise regular conferences and skills training activities in the department.

The student will undertake a 4-month internship at Gowerlabs Ltd. to gain direct experience with the engineering side of developing NIRS systems. Here, the student will work alongside experienced industrial designers and commercial electronics engineers amongst others. Exposure to industrial design and manufacturing processes will give valuable insight into the major differences between the academic and the industrial work environments.

Here are a few of many possible projects the student may become involved with while at Gowerlabs:

  • Integration of EEG with Gowerlabs’ new wearable imaging system – this has many challenging aspects, e.g., cross-talk issues between the two modalities, physical design of the headgear.
  • Data visualisation – Gowerlabs’ systems produce very large amounts of data, and the effective visualisation of this data is a difficult problem to solve. This project would suit a student with an interest in computer programming.
  • Multimodal phantom research – a tissue phantom that combines both optical and electrical properties would be a very useful research tool. This project would suit a student seeking some practical research work.

The student will continue to receive support from, and be involved with, relevant projects at Gowerlabs after the internship finishes.


Lloyd-Fox, S., Blasi, A., & Elwell, C. E. (2010). Illuminating the developing brain: the past, present and future of functional near infrared spectroscopy. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, 34(3), 269-284. doi:10.1016/j.neubiorev.2009.07.008

Wilcox, T., & Biondi, M. (2015). fNIRS in the developmental sciences. WIREs Cognitive Science, 6(3), 263-283. doi:10.1002/wcs.1343

Brigadoi, S., Salvagnin, D., Fischetti, M., & Cooper, R. J. (2018). Array Designer: automated optimized array design for functional near-infrared spectroscopy. Neurophotonics, 5(3), 035010. doi:10.1117/1.NPh.5.3.035010

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