James: PhD Psychology

James, a PhD Psychology student, describes his experiences of the course and of life in the School of Psychology at the University of Birmingham.


My name’s James Blundell. I'm a PhD student in Psychology here at the University of Birmingham. I came here five years ago to do an MSc in Brain Imaging and Cognitive Neuroscience which led me onto do some work in my thesis on neurodegenerative disease in childhood. 

Currently I'm working in collaboration with a pharmaceutical company who are interested in establishing some behavioural markers so we can track the efficiency of existing and emerging therapies. 

So at the School of Psychology there's quite a heavy emphasis on neuropsychological research, and in these studies we employ quite a wide range of techniques. In my case I use eye movements as a way to determine how disease affects cognitive function in children.  

We use a video based eye movement system that projects infrared light onto the pupil and the surface of the eye in order to determine the position of the eye one thousand times a second. So we can use these measures to tell us how fast the eye is moving towards the target, the velocity of that eye movement, and whether the eye movement at the end is overshooting or undershooting a target. These are very informative in telling us how the children with these neurodegenerative diseases are being affected. 

Another way in which we can track degenerative disease in the School of Psychology is by measuring posture and balance. These are important measures since a lot of disorders that I'm interested in have cerebellar involvement. So in clinics they present with an increased frequency of falls and also clumsiness. 

This is important since we’re working with rare neurodegenerative disorders, so understanding how these functions develop normally helps us to compare these populations to healthy children. 

Because we’re interested in these rare disorders, MSc students can contribute to the lab project in a number of ways. One way is through collecting healthy development data in primary schools and in nurseries, and another way is through directly collecting patient data, and this project work can be used as part of their MSc projects, but their work also contributes to the high impact studies that are produced by the University as well.