mouths forming a conversation
Illustration by Laurène Boglio

Community newsletter: All about cognitive flexibility

In this week’s community newsletter, we discuss a new paper on cognitive and behavioral flexibility and why it’s important during the COVID-19 pandemic.

By Chelsey B. Coombs
14 February 2021 | 5 min read

Hello, and welcome to this week’s community newsletter! I’m your host, Chelsey B. Coombs, Spectrum’s engagement editor.

Before we get started, I wanted to remind you about our Spectrum reader survey. We want to know what you think about our site and how we can make it even better. Participants have a chance to win one of 30 Spectrum-branded bags or notebooks, or one of our three Spectrum books. The last day to submit the survey is 5 March, so please send in your feedback ASAP.

Up first this week is a tweet from Lucina Uddin, associate professor of psychology at the University of Miami in Florida. She posted about her new paper in Nature Reviews Neuroscience, “Cognitive and behavioural flexibility: Neural mechanisms and clinical considerations.”

In the review, Uddin discusses cognitive and behavioral flexibility problems in conditions such as autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, mood disorders and dementia. She describes previous research that has tried to pinpoint the brain networks responsible for these problems, as well as where research should go in the future. “Understanding the typical development of these networks, their stabilization in adulthood and their potential for breakdown with ageing is the first step towards pinpointing effective strategies for addressing flexibility deficits in psychiatric and neurological disorders and enhancing flexibility across the lifespan,” she writes.

Maryam Ziaei, associate professor at the Kavli Institute for Systems Neuroscience in Oslo, Norway, said she “particularly enjoyed the bilingual section in relation to flexibility,” in which Uddin details studies that have examined whether bilingualism has cognitive advantages.

Mathieu Hainselin, senior lecturer in experimental psychology at the University of Picardy Jules Verne in Amiens, France, said that “20 clinical neuropsychology Master students are working on this paper right now,” and highlighted the role Twitter played in publicizing the review.

Uddin also notes that COVID-19 has highlighted the need for people to be cognitively and behaviorally flexible. Along the same lines, Goldy Yadav, a Fulbright fellow at the U.S. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, said that this flexibility is a “key factor for survival and evolution of our species, and will possibly determine our fate henceforth.”

Our second post of the week is from Catherine Crompton, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. She wrote a thread about her new commentary with fellow University of Edinburgh postdoctoral researcher Rachael Davis that was published in Perspectives on Psychological Science: “What do new findings about social interaction in autistic adults mean for neurodevelopmental research?

In the paper, the pair discusses why it’s problematic to frame miscommunications between autistic and non-autistic people as being due to autism-specific social difficulties. These conversations are, at least in part, bidirectional and lead to mutual misunderstanding. In the thread, Crompton also highlights research showing there is often an ease in communication between autistic people, “something that autistic people have been reporting anecdotally for a long time.”

Crompton and Davis propose new directions for future research and write that “challenging the status quo of social cognition could lead to a paradigm shift in our understanding not only of autism but also a range of neurodivergences and highlight the need to consider how we describe and measure other psychologically defined conditions.”

Dimitris Bolis, a postdoctoral researcher at the Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry in Munich, Germany, called it “Great commentary on the current shift of autism studies.”

Birkbeck, University of London postdoctoral researcher Anna Gui said the commentary was “truly inspiring.”

Ann Memmott, an associate and ‘expert by experience’ at the National Development Team for Inclusion in the United Kingdom, called it a “magnificent paper.”

And finally, I wanted to highlight the webinars we’ve hosted over the past few weeks, which are now available to watch on our site. In January, Emily Jones, professor of translational neurodevelopment at Birkbeck, University of London, spoke about insights from prospective longitudinal studies of autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. And last week, André Fenton, professor of neural science at New York University, discussed how to rethink dysfunction in fragile X model mice.

That’s it for this week’s Spectrum community newsletter! If you have any suggestions for interesting social posts you saw in the autism research sphere this week, feel free to send an email to me at [email protected]. See you next week!