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Back to the scanner: brain science in times of corona

For their research many neuropsychologists use the brain scanners at the LUMC. At the start of the pandemic, the rules for visiting the hospital became stricter and a large amount of psychology research looked as though it would fall through. Thanks to good protocols the researchers can now pick up where they left off. A reconstruction.

Simone Dobbelaar and Lina van Drunen remember it like it was yesterday. On Thursday 12 March 2020 they went with the rest of the department of Developmental and Educational Psychology to their colleague Michelle Achterberg’s PhD defence. In the Academy Building they watched Achterberg be awarded a cum laude for her research into socio-emotional regulation in children. The close-knit department was proud as Punch.

Dark cloud

But a dark cloud was already hanging above the Netherlands, and this cloud was growing fast. The coronavirus crisis had started a few months before as an unknown disease in distant China, but this elusive virus was now at the threshold of our university buildings. Shaking hands was discouraged, trips abroad were banned and within 24 hours of Achterberg’s PhD defence, classes were cancelled and everyone was told to work at home.

‘How long would it last? A month, six months, a whole year perhaps?’

But what if you can’t work at home? This was the dilemma facing Dobbelaar and Van Drunen. In the large L-CID study, these Leiden neuropsychologists are following the development of social competences and behavioural control in twins between the ages of three and fourteen. They are studying the brain activity of the children in one of the LUMC brain scanners. But it quite rightly became much more difficult to visit the hospital during the pandemic. The result: the research came to an abrupt halt.

‘That caused a great deal of uncertainty,’ says Dobbelaar. ‘How long would it last? A month, six months, a whole year perhaps? And how much would this delay my PhD research? We couldn’t wait to get started again.’

Research study at risk

The design of the L-CID twins study made the delay all the more serious. The study is using what is known as longitudinal research, which means following the same test subjects over a longer period of time. Repeated data-collection periods help give a good idea of how children develop, but also of whether children from a younger cohort go on to achieve the same results as their somewhat older predecessors. If you omit one of these periods, this immediately makes it more difficult to compare the results. Or as Dobbelaar puts it: ‘The pandemic may have stopped our research, but it didn’t stop children growing.’

Months went by. To make good use of the time, the PhD candidates worked on publications using the data that they already had. And they also worked hard on a protocol for when things reopened. Because as soon as the LUMC was given the go-ahead to reopen the scanning facilities, the neuropsychologists didn’t want to waste a minute. So they already started considering how the research could be resumed in as Covid-proof a fashion as possible.

‘The pandemic may have stopped our research, but it didn’t stop children growing.’

Erring on the side of safety

In the summer of 2020, after a break of five months, the neuropsychologists could finally return to the LUMC for their research, albeit under strict conditions. Because it would be awful if a test subject were to bring coronavirus to the hospital via the backdoor.

‘We err on the side of safety in our new process,’ says Van Drunen. ‘We go through various steps to ensure that we really are doing all we can to keep Covid out.’

It already begins with the phone call inviting the test subjects to participate in the study. ‘The first thing we ask the parents or guardians is whether the test subjects or their classmates have cold symptoms. A few days before the research they also receive a text asking them 24 hours before the research to make sure that they really don’t have any symptoms. At the hospital entrance they are asked this again by LUMC staff, and once again by us when they enter the MRI room.’

Gloves and face shields

Fortunately the test subjects and their parents take everything very seriously, says Van Drunen. This did mean that some research days were very different from how the researchers had hoped because people regularly phoned to cancel at the last minute. But thanks to a flexible schedule and the ability to put things into perspective, the most important result was at least achieved: the data collection for the L-CID study was up and running again!

The researchers themselves do all they can to reduce the risks. They socially distance as much as possible and use gloves and face shields. This caused some hilarity at the beginning, particularly when one of the researchers took a sip of coffee while still wearing her face mask..

‘It’s great to see how some children get into the zone in the study, and bounce up and down to the rhythm.’

Bouncing children

‘It’s amazing that the children can come in again,’ says Van Drunen. She is currently conducting research into an important part of making music: sensorimotor synchronisation. This is the ability to tap in time to rhythm. This ability develops rapidly in children, and is also important in the development of language, sport and social interactions. Van Drunen wants to find out whether children with a certain brain development pattern have a head start on other children. She therefore served the test subjects up with a music test. ‘It’s great to see how some children get into the zone in the study, and bounce up and down to the rhythm.’

Dobbelaar is also glad to be able to welcome the young test subjects again. She is currently conducting a replication study on social aggression regulation, which entails repeating a previous study to see whether the same results can be obtained. ‘The good thing about our data collection is that we meet so many different children and families. Some are brutally honest. One asked if I didn’t feel stupid wearing my face shield.’

But having to wear an ugly face mask doesn’t bother the PhD candidates. The data collection can continue and that is the main thing. Since the lab reopened the MRI data of more than 230 children has been collected.

Text: Merijn van Nuland
Photos: Sjoerd Dobbinga

About the L-CID study

L-CID is the Leiden Consortium on Individual Development, a research project at the Institute of Psychology at Leiden University. This is a large-scale, longitudinal study in which 500 families with same-sex twins are participating. During these twins’ annual visits, the researchers collect behavioural and neurological data. This enables them to study whether certain characteristics in the children are caused by biological or environmental factors (nature versus nurture).

In a completed study the researchers looked at young children’s self-image, for instance. It has been known for longer that an important change takes place in children between the ages of about seven and nine. Whereas younger children mainly look at themselves when it comes to their abilities (‘I’m getting better at sums’), somewhat older children also compare their performance with that of others (‘I’m better at sums than most of my classmates’). But which brain regions are related to this and what role do genes and environment play? Research in 345 children has showed that thinking about social behaviour is mainly influenced by their environment and thinking about school performances mainly by their genes. The difference was also found to some extent in brain activity.

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