Project ID NS-MH2024_29


Co Supervisor 1A Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience, School of Mental Health & Psychological Sciences, Social, Genetic & Developmental Psychiatry CentreWebsite

Co Supervisor 1B Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience, School of Neuroscience, Department of Basic & Clinical NeuroscienceWebsite

Additional Supervisor Dr Timothy Nicholson and Dr Benjamin Baig

Body and mind in Autism: Exploring the connection with Functional Neurological Disorder

Functional Neurological Disorders (FNDs), previously known as Conversion Disorder or Hysteria, is a common cause of severe sensori-motor and cognitive symptoms. Emerging data indicate high rates of co-occurrence and potentially overlapping mechanisms with Autistic Spectrum Disorders (ASDs) which, although characterised by social and communication difficulties, also have complex and under-researched sensorimotor features. Understanding the mind-body connections of these disorders could improve the understanding/treatment of both.

Cutting-edge neuroscience has provided potential insights into these links, such as ‘predictive brain’ dysfunction causing dysfunction of attention (e.g., hyper-focused/‘sticky’ attention), visual-motor integration (for learning both motor and social skills), bodily sensation (interoception) and emotion identification (alexithymia). There are also intriguing links between ASD and FND in terms of nonbinary gender identity and psychological trauma.

The student will be at the centre of this exciting new area of research at the intersection of two common and poorly understood conditions and the mind-body junction, working with international leaders in ASD and FND research, and paediatric and adult expert clinicians from King’s Health Partners. They will gain experience in assessing/treating both FND and ASD as well as both quantitative and qualitative research methods. They will also join the supportive and dynamic Re:spect lab and Neuropsychiatry Research & Education groups

Provisional plan:
Year 1:
• Publish systematic review on FND and autism.
• Observe FND and autism assessments.
• Publish case series from existing clinic data on co-occurrence.
• PPI work with ASD and FND people and their families.
• Ethics application for new data collection.
Year 2:
• Qualitative study of patients with ASD and FND, write up, publish.
• Plan and begin quantitative study testing mechanistic hypotheses.
Year 3 & 4 (depending on pathway):
• Complete data collection, analyse and publish quantitative studies.
• Dissemination at conferences.
• Develop information resources for patients, parents/carers & clinicians.
• Submit thesis.

Representative Publications

Colvert, E., Simonoff, E., Capp, S.J., Ronald, A., Bolton, P. and Happé, F., (2022). Autism Spectrum Disorder and mental health problems: Patterns of difficulties and longitudinal trajectories in a population-based twin sample. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 52(3), pp.1077-1091

Happé, F. & Frith, U. (2020). Annual Research Review: Looking back to look forward – changes in the concept of autism and implications for future research. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 61, 218-232.

Rumball, F., Antal, K., Happé, F., & Grey, N. (2021). Co-occurring mental health symptoms and cognitive processes in trauma-exposed ASD adults. Research in Developmental Disabilities, 110, 103836

González-Herrero B, Morgante F, Pagonabarraga J, Stanton B, Edwards MJ. (2022). Autism Spectrum Disorder May Be Highly Prevalent in People with Functional Neurological Disorders. J Clin Med, 12(1), 299. Huys, A. -C. M. L., Haggard, P., Bhatia, K. P., & Edwards, M. J. (2021). Misdirected attentional focus in functional tremor.. Brain, 144(11), 3436-3450.

Sadnicka, A., Daum, C., Meppelink, A. -M., Manohar, S., & Edwards, MJ. (2020). Reduced drift rate: a biomarker of impaired information processing in functional movement disorders.. Brain, 143(2), 674-683.