Doctor of Philosophy in Population and Public Health (PhD)
Intersectoral and placed-based approaches to fostering equity in children's development
Adele Diamond, PhD, FRSC is the Canada Research Chair Tier I Professor of Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience at University of British Columbia (UBC), Vancouver, BC, Canada. A Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, she has been named one of the “2000 Outstanding Women of the 20th Century,” has been listed as one the 15 most influential neuroscientists alive today, and her impact was recently ranked among the top 0.01% of all scientists across all fields. She received her BA from Swarthmore (Phi Beta Kappa), her PhD from Harvard, and was a postdoctoral fellow at Yale Medical School.
Prof. Diamond co-founded the field of Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience and continues to be recognized as a world leader in both Psychology and Neuroscience as evidenced by her impact, awards, success in research funding, leadership roles, and abundant invitations to speak across disciplines, professions, and nations. She has held federal research grants continuously for over 40 years (since her graduate school days) and overseen over $24 million in research funding. She has given over 600 keynote addresses and invited talks, including at the White House and to the Dalai Lama as well as in 34 countries across 5 continents. Her work has been cited over 45,000 times and has an h-index of 69. She heads the Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience Program at UBC, has served on over 25 external advisory boards and 10 editorial boards, including those of all 3 major journals in Developmental Psychology. Her many awards include the Award for Lifetime Contributions to Developmental Psychology in the Service of Science and Society from the American Psychological Association, the International Mind, Brain and Education Society’s Translation Award (the highest award that society gives), election to Fellow of the American Psychology Association, Association for Psychological Science, and Society of Experimental Psychologists, as well as honorary doctorates from Swarthmore College and Ben-Gurion University.
Prof. Diamond’s specialty is executive functions, which depend on the brain’s prefrontal cortex and interrelated neural regions. Executive functions enable us to resist temptations and automatic impulsive reactions, stay focused, mentally play with ideas, reason, problem-solve, flexibly adjust to changed demands or priorities, and see things from new and different perspectives. Prof. Diamond’s lab studies how executive functions are affected by biological factors (such as genes and neurochemistry) and by environmental ones (for example, impaired by stress or improved by interventions).
She has demonstrated that executive functions emerge and can be assessed as early as the first year of life, and shown that interventions can improve executive functions even in very young children. Her work has demonstrated ways to help children grasp concepts and succeed at tasks long thought beyond their ability and has changed how people think about cognitive development in emphasizing the importance of inhibiting reactions that get in the way of demonstrating knowledge that is already present.
Her work on the unusual properties of the dopamine system in prefrontal cortex led to her identifying the biological mechanism causing executive function deficits in children treated for phenylketonuria (PKU) and definitively documenting those deficits, resulting in the guidelines for the medical treatment of PKU changing around the globe. Here is an example of how changing behavior (diet) can affect neurochemistry and brain function. Global changes to clinical practice again followed two of her subsequent discoveries. Thus, on three separate occasions her discoveries have led to improvements in the treatment of medical disorders.
More recently, Prof. Diamond has derived new principles for how to improve executive functions and debunked previously-accepted ones. She offers a markedly different perspective from traditional medical practice in holding that treating physical health, without also addressing social and emotional health is less efficient or efficacious. Prof. Diamond also offers a markedly different perspective from mainstream education and has shown that focusing exclusively on training cognitive skills is less efficient, and ultimately less successful, than also addressing social, emotional, spiritual, and physical needs. She has shown that many issues are not simply education issues or health issues; they are both.
Prof. Diamond is also known as an exceptional communicator, both in writing and in speaking, making complicated concepts easily understandable across fields and to the lay public. She has been instrumental in bringing researchers and practitioners together across fields and in jump-starting countless collaborations. One of her many humanitarians projects was recently recognition by the establishment of the "Adele Diamond Foundation" in her honor to further efforts to help Maasai children receive a quality education.
In traumatized youth, can prefrontal cortex communication with the amygdala be restored by a stress-reduction program (e.g., Niroga’s yoga-based mindfulness program)? Are the benefits of music for improving executive functions (EFs), mood, and quality of life greater when the experience of listening to the music is socially shared? Can the benefits of listening to the spoken word be as great as those of listening to music for EFs, mood, and quality of life? Modeling gonadal hormone and COMT genotype modulation of the effects of mild stress on EFs pharmacologically with low-dose methylphenidate Will individuals be more emotionally invested in EF training if they have a say in shaping the training activity and will that translate into greater EF benefits?
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Dissertations completed in 2010 or later are listed below. Please note that there is a 6-12 month delay to add the latest dissertations.
There is a growing body of evidence that early stress such as neglect, maltreatment and other adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) affect the way a children’s brain develops, making them more vulnerable to mental health problems. When these children reach school age, they are more likely to be identified as having learning, behaviour or social problems, and becoming students “at-risk”. The literature suggests that one of the reasons why these children have difficulty in school is that their nervous systems may be geared to prioritize managing fear rather than to processing information. In other words, the lower-order stress response system is given priority over the higher-level functions of processing information and learning, including executive functions. This study was a naturalistic pilot project designed to assess the use of a Neurosequential Model of Therapeutics (NMT) assessment to inform a behaviour plan for elementary school students who have a history of adverse childhood experiences. The study involved two cohorts of four children, ages 6 – 9, who had a history of adverse childhood experiences and had been identified as needing a high level of behavioural support within the mainstream classroom. Over a period of 4 months, one cohort received a trauma-informed behaviour plan based on an NMT assessment, the other cohort received a behaviour plan based on a Functional Behaviour Assessment. Percentage of academic engaged time and heart rate variability were tracked over the course of the intervention. Pre and post measures of executive functions were gathered. For the four students in the NMT cohort, a pre and post NMT metric was produced, as well as a pre- and post NME mini map. Neither of the interventions were demonstrated to be effective, which is most likely due to the complex challenges of the naturalistic setting in the school context. However, some interesting trends were identified that would suggest that further research would be warranted.
Theses completed in 2010 or later are listed below. Please note that there is a 6-12 month delay to add the latest theses.
Prefrontal cortex (PFC)-dependent executive functions (EFs) are critical for reasoning, problem-solving, self-control and planning. The PFC dopamine (DA) level has been demonstrated to modulate EFs in an inverted U-shaped curve, where an intermediate level of DA is optimal. Unlike in other brain regions, PFC DA systems: 1) relies highly on the catechol-O-methyltransferase (COMT) enzyme for clearing released DA; and 2) can be activated even by mild stress. Estradiol (E2) has been shown to down-regulate COMT gene transcription, causing the activity of COMT enzyme to be ~30% less in women than in men. Animal studies have repeatedly shown that stress facilitates cognitive functions dependent on the hippocampus and / or PFC in males, but impairs them in females. Therefore, based on Diamond’s hypothesis that baseline PFC DA levels are higher and closer to the optimal level in women during menstrual phases when their circulating E2 are elevated, than in men, we predicted that mild stress would facilitate EF performance in men but impair it in women when their circulating E2 levels are high. In a crossover design, healthy young adults (both men and women), all COMT Val¹⁵⁸Met heterozygotes, were each tested twice (once with social-evaluative stress and once without, order counterbalanced) on five EF tasks which tapped on the core EFs of inhibitory control, working memory and cognitive flexibility, and one higher-level EF, reasoning. Women were randomly assigned to the low-E2 (F-L) group or high-E2 (F-H) group. Women in the F-L group were tested during the early follicular phase (low E2 level). Women in the F-H group were tested during the midluteal phase (high E2 level). Our social-evaluative procedure was showed to succeed in inducing physiological and subjective stress responses and significantly impaired the performance of the F-H group on one index of inhibitory control, whereas the performance of the M and F-L groups showed a trend towards enhancement. Similar trends (M and F-L: stress-induced enhancement; F-H: stress-induced impairments) were found for some other indices in the first two tasks. These results emphasized that the ways of improving EFs need to be considered in a sex-specific and hormone-dependent manner.