The association between childhood language development and adolescent psychotic experiences in a general population sample.

The Sylvia and Christine Wastall PhD Scholarship 2019: Population Health Sciences, University of Bristol 

Supervisor: Dr S. A. Sullivan

Summary: Language is unique to humans. It uses special brain systems for grammar and vocabulary, and other abilities such as memory and attention. Language is also social. Its main purpose is to exchange thoughts and feelings with others. Language disruptions are found in disorders such as dementia and stroke and in serious mental health problems such as schizophrenia. Language problems for some mental illnesses may occur in childhood, long before people get ill. Detection of subtle language differences, which may not be detectable by ear, may identify people who are at risk of future mental health problems meaning that they can get help earlier. Previous research has investigated this question using parents' reports of their child's language, which may not be accurate. We propose ground-breaking work using recordings of 8-year-old children speaking and computer software that automatically analyses certain language features, such as the way children group words, which indicates their language development. Some of these children later reported psychotic experiences (like those experienced by people with schizophrenia), at ages 12, 18 and 24 years. We will investigate whether those who reported experiences had differences in their language at age 8 years, compared to those who did not. If differences are found, this would be a cheap and simple way to detect children at risk and help right individuals to reduce risk of later mental health problems.

Student: Sarah Hemingway

Hello, I’m Sarah and I’m due to start my PhD at the University of Bristol in October 2019.        

After a decade since finishing my Psychology degree at the University of Liverpool, I decided to do a MSc in Clinical and Health Psychology at Bangor University. My decision to do so was influenced by my time volunteering at the NHS Perinatal Mental Health Service in Sheffield. I developed a keen interest in postpartum psychosis, and upon discovering how little it had been researched, I became enthused to learn more about psychosis, particularly the cognitive aspects of it. Prior to this, I had worked as a mental healthcare assistant at the Clatterbridge Psychiatric Unit in Wirral. Having observed the complexities associated with psychotic episodes on the wards, and then years later, listened to the negative experiences of mothers who had endured it, prompted me to return to my studies. I did so, due to wanting to pursue a career in research in this area. My ambition is to further our understanding about the origins and nature of psychosis, in the hope of finding interventions which will improve outcomes.

The PhD will allow me to dedicate my time to research the interests I care about. I will have the chance to build upon my knowledge, as well as advance and broaden my research skills. It will involve investigating an association between childhood language development and psychotic experiences in adolescence, under the guidance and supervision of Dr. Sarah Sullivan, Dr. Yvonne Wren and Professor Rosemary Varley. I am grateful to them and Mental Health Research UK for this amazing opportunity, for which I am eager to begin.