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Exploring the mechanistic role of dopamine in social cognition

Primary Supervisor: Dr Jennifer Cook, School of Psychology

Secondary supervisor: Dr Ned Jenkinson

PhD project title:Exploring the mechanistic role of dopamine in social cognition

University of Registration: University of Birmingham

Project outline:


Parkinson’s Disease (PD) is associated with a loss of dopamine neurons in the brain. Although PD is commonly thought of as a “motor disorder”, a growing literature documents socio-cognitive difficulties in individuals with this condition including challenges with recognising facial expressions (Bologna et al., 2013) and putting oneself in other’s shoes (Mengelberg & Siegert, 2003). The discovery of socio-cognitive difficulties in PD raises questions about the mechanistic role that dopamine plays in social cognition. To date, few studies have explored dopamine’s involvement in social cognition. A key question is whether dopamine is directly implicated in social cognition, or whether its impact on socio-cognitive function is driven by dopaminergic involvement in other processes such as motor function. This PhD project aims to develop a mechanistic understanding of the role that dopamine plays in social cognition. The results will shed light on the biological mechanisms underlying socio-cognitive ability and will have important implications for individuals with Parkinson’s Disease.


Through recent work in our lab we have developed a battery of tasks which can be used to examine the extent to which one’s own motor abilities influence socio-cognitive abilities. For example, we recently extended a classical test of social cognition referred to as the animations task, wherein participants have to guess the mental state illustrated by two animated triangles who appear to mock, seduce, surprise or coax each other. Our online version of the animations task (Schuster et al., 2020) enables us to measure the accuracy of participants’ mental state attribution and also the extent to which this is influenced by their motor function (i.e. the movements they would use to animate the triangles themselves). Similarly, we recently developed tasks which assess the extent to which one’s ability to recognise happiness, sadness and anger in other’s facial expressions is influenced by one’s own facial expressions (Sowden et al., in press), and whether judging emotions from other’s walking speed is influenced by one’s own speed of walking (Edey et al., 2017).

For the current PhD project, we will combine our new battery of tasks with psychopharmacology and patient studies. That is, we will examine a) whether drugs and/or clinical conditions that result in atypical dopamine levels impact on social cognition, and b) whether this impact is completely explained by the impact of the drug/clinical condition on motor function.


  1. Bologna, M., Fabbrini, G., Marsili, L., Defazio, G., Thompson, P. D., & Berardelli, A. (2013). Facial bradykinesia. Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery & Psychiatry, 84(6), 681–685.
  2. Edey, R., Yon, D., Cook, J., Dumontheil, I., & Press, C. (2017). Our own action kinematics predict the perceived affective states of others. Journal of Experimental Psychology. Human Perception and Performance, 43(7), 1263–1268.
  3. Mengelberg, A., & Siegert, R. (2003). Is theory-of-mind impaired in Parkinson’s disease? Cognitive Neuropsychiatry, 8(3), 191–209.
  4. Schuster, B., Fraser, D., Sowden, S., Van den Bosch, J., Gordon, A., & Cook, J. (2020). Attributing Minds to Triangles. Experimental Psychology Society, London, UK.
  5. Sowden, S., Schuster, B. A., Keating, C. T., Fraser, D. S., & Cook, J. (in press). The role of movement kinematics in facial emotion expression production and recognition. Emotion.

Further reading:

Eddy, C. & Cook, J.L. (2018) Emotions in action: The relationship between motor function and social cognition across multiple clinical populations. Progress in Neuro-Psychopharmacology & Biological Psychiatry. 86:229-244

BBSRC Strategic Research Priority: Understanding the Rules of Life: Neuroscience and behaviour

    Techniques that will be undertaken during the project:

    • Behavioural testing (with Dr Cook)
    • Motion tracking and kinematic analysis (with Dr Cook & Dr Jenkinson)
    • Psychopharmacology (with Dr Cook)
    • Patient studies (with Dr Cook & Dr Jenkinson)

    Contact: Dr Jennifer Cook, University of Birmingham