Understanding how the brain makes sense of it all

September 22, 2017

Ryan Stevenson, Department of Psychology

Ryan Stevenson wants to understand how the brain makes sense of all the information it receives.

Stevenson, Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology, received both a NSERC Discover grant, valued at $150,000 and a SSHRC Insight grant, valued at $308,000 to investigate questions related to sensory integration.

The projects, while related, will view different aspects of the process.

The NSERC funded project, Development and Neuroplasticity of Multisensory Integration, will focus on the development of a typically-functioning brain’s ability to manage multiple sensory inputs.

Using MRI scans, Stevenson will look at how the human brain learns to use statistical regularities to make sense of sensory cues, learning to process the information we perceive.

The SSHRC funded project will look specifically as sensory integration and sensitivity in people with autism, how they impact social situations and symptomatology.

“It’s the same underlying cognitive process of sensory integration, but one project focuses on typical development the other is when something goes awry,” said Stevenson.

Many symptoms of autism are exhibited as a lack of social awareness, or even development delays, when they could be due to perception issues.

One example is the presence of repetitive behavior. Repetitive behavior can may be used as a sensory soothing behavior, or a coping mechanism in high-sensation environments, said Stevenson.

“Sensory sensitivity levels are highly predictive of repetitive behavior in kids with autism,” said Stevenson. “In general, the higher the sensitivity, the stronger repetitive behavior is.”

The project will work to separate sensory responsivity from sensory hypersensitivity. Through detection tasks and object identification, Stevenson will try to physically measure sensitivity in kids with and without autism.

Clinical research relating to people with autism often relies on parent reporting, but Stevenson says, parent reporting cannot track sensory sensitivity without it being conflated with over-responsivity. Sensitivity is specifically how sensory inputs are perceived and processed, both physiologically and psychologically, whereas reactivity is a child’s behavioural response to that perception.

Stevenson plans to conduct a longitudinal study to relate sensory issues and behavioral symptomatology, including social development.
“I’m particularly happy to be able to do a longitudinal study, which the five-year grant will allow,” he said.

Stevenson categorizes the NSERC projects as basic research, and the SSHRC project is more specific. “I want to see a combination of basic research and clinical work in the same lab, and that’s what makes the lab unique,” said Stevenson. “Both projects will be highly informative of the other.”