My group's research focuses on human memory and how it changes in normal ageing, using brain imaging – functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and electrophysiological event-related potentials (ERPs) – as well as behavioural methods. We are particularly interested how the mental and brain substrates that enable us to remember events (episodic memory) change during the adult lifespan.
I teach on memory, cognitive ageing and brain imaging methods.
Please note that my main affiliation as of 1 January 2019 is the University of Sussex
PhD, MSc, MB BChir
At Honours level, I currently supervise Year 3 mini dissertations and Year 4 dissertations.
I organise and teach on our three MSc Brain Imaging courses. Specialist Techniques in Psychological Research is a team-taught core course based on lectures and workshops. It provides a grounding in a selection of specialist research techniques including brain imaging (fMRI/ ERPs). In Brain Imaging in Cognitive Neuroscience students are invited to become expert and critical readers of cognitive and clinical brain imaging papers. This course is also team-taught, focusing on a range of applications of different imaging methodologies and related techniques in cognitive and clinical neuroscience, with an emphasis on the strengths and limitations of different approaches. Imaging Mind and Brain is a highly interactive, participatory course which aims to give students a deep understanding of what Brain Imaging can - and cannot - tell us about the mind. Its goal is to engage students critically in discussion around several cutting-edge conceptual and methodological issues, with use of eclectic examples.
Open to PhD supervision enquiries?
Areas of interest for supervision
Please contact me directly if you're interested in doing a PhD in my lab. Possible projects encompass all the interest areas outlined in my current research. For those with a Psychology or related background, current funding opportunities include those from the ESRC as well as various University of Edinburgh schemes. If you have a computational background, there may be other options (please ask).
If you'd like to know more about life in neuroscience research, this recent video curated by Edinburgh Neuroscience and an Edinburgh MSc student features some work from my lab involving two of our own postgraduate students.
Current PhD students supervised
Our research uses different kinds of memory tasks and two types of brain imaging: scalp-recorded electrical brain potentials (EEG/ERPs), and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).
A key question for an ageing population is how best to maintain cognitive function in later life. There has been intense scientific debate about whether it is important to maintain a more “youthful brain” or whether compensatory reorganisation is needed for optimal function. Either could explain the common observation that brain activity is increased rather than reduced in older people. In a new fMRI study (Morcom & Henson, 2018), we tested these competing theories (see Morcom and Johnson, 2015 and Alexa’s 1 minute video about some of our methods). In two different memory tasks we found evidence that elevated frontal brain activity in older people was less specific or less efficient rather than a way to maintain cognitive function. This converges with our earlier finding that distributed brain activity in older people was less specific to the type of events being remembered (Abdulrahman et al., 2015). One reason for less specific brain activity in older people may be that they engage more general mental processes across different tasks, consistent with results of our recent meta-analysis (Hoffman & Morcom, 2018). Together, the data support the view that good cognitive function in old age is more likely if an older brain operates like a younger one.
Another interest is in memory errors in young and older people. When memory for events relies more on prior knowledge the memories reflect gist rather than specific details. This may happen more with increasing age, but so far there are conflicting findings with our most recent study conducted by Honours Psychology project students suggesting that older people do not always make more gist based errors (Burnside et al., 2017). In other work we focus on how age differences in recollection reflect changes in mental control rather than representation. We are using ERPs to test when and how effectively older people are able to engage control of what is brought to mind before a memory is retrieved (Morcom, 2016; Keating et al., 2017).
We have various collaborative projects, for example investigating working memory, and musical cognition (e.g., Parra et al., 2013; Schaefer et al., 2014). See my research profile on ResearchGate for more information, Twitter feed @alexa_morcom, and see Publications (below) for links to papers.
Edinburgh Neuroscience's Ages of the Brain (this recent video) featuring our lab, and two of our PG students doing an EEG experiment
A Daily Mail article walking through the decades of life in terms of memory