An Update from Research Challenge Winner Dr Tegan Penton

We recently had the chance to catch up with our 2017 Research Challenge winner, Tegan Penton, following the news that she has now completed her PhD. We have been exceptionally proud to follow the progression of Tegan's research investigating the effects of tDCS on individuals with autism, and it was fantastic to see years of hard work paying off. Here's what Tegan had to say about the final stages of her PhD, completing a viva in her slippers, and her experiences with the Brainbox Initiative Research Challenge.

"During these strange times, I was lucky enough to successfully defend my PhD thesis. Although this had to take place online rather than in person, it did mean I was able to complete my viva in my slippers – a luxury not afforded to most PhD students. I was also lucky enough to have two lovely examiners which meant that I actually enjoyed the viva experience.

Briefly, my PhD investigated the extent to which people with Autism Spectrum Disorder (hereafter ‘Autism’) experienced motor control difficulties across a broad range of tasks. We also investigated how traits that are often higher in participants with Autism (notably, Alexithymia and Autistic Traits) related to one’s awareness of their control over their actions and one’s motivation to engage in actions. Finally, we ran two preliminary studies investigating the utility of using non-invasive brain stimulation methods to modulate motor response in people with Autism. I’d like to focus on these final two studies in a little more detail.

In 2017, I was awarded the Research Challenge prize from the Brainbox Initiative to investigate the effects of tDCS in participants with Autism. Participants with Autism show functional and structural brain differences compared to people without Autism. These factors can also affect response to non-invasive brain stimulation. In spite of this, the handful of studies using this technique in adults with Autism were often reliant on protocols designed for neurotypical adults. In our work, we found that a small group of participants with Autism respond differently to tDCS delivered to the motor cortex relative to neurotypical controls. Although these findings are preliminary, they highlight the need to understand tDCS effects in people with Autism prior to using tDCS to induce longer-term changes in this group. In a second study, we also showed that participants with Autism show differences in brain excitability. This may point toward an explanation for a different response in this group to tDCS. Understanding why people with Autism respond the way they do to tDCS can help us predict response and tailor non-invasive brain stimulation interventions to this group.

Importantly, neither of these studies would have existed without the Research Challenge prize. I feel incredibly privileged to have had access to the equipment from Brainbox, but also to have benefitted from the expertise of their team. Their insight and support throughout the project was invaluable. I will be forever grateful to Brainbox for making these two studies (and the final two chapters of my thesis!) possible. I would heavily encourage any early career researcher to apply to the Research Challenge in future. Schemes like this at our career stage are incredibly rare and I can’t stress how beneficial this prize was to my career progress. If you are considering applying, please do so. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain.

Thank you Brainbox!"