Dr. Joanna Atkinson

Jo Atkinson

As well as a Cognitive Research Scientist, I am a certified Clinical Psychologist, specialising in neuropsychology. I am one of only two deaf Neuropsychologists, with sign language as a primary language, world-wide.

My research career has focused on investigating the nature of neurological impairments as they manifest in deaf people who sign. This offers new insights into important questions in language, cognition, and neuroscience. So far, tests and work that I have developed in British Sign Language with different clinical populations, including those with stroke, autism, specific language impairment, dementia and schizophrenia, have addressed theoretical models of: memory; language organisation; executive function; face processing and the causal mechanisms of auditory verbal hallucinations.

In order to benefit and undertake research with deaf clinical populations, I have been instrumental in establishing the first NHS neurology service for deaf people, allowing improved diagnosis of neurodegenerative conditions and brain disorders. As a result, deaf patients now attend the internationally recognised Cognitive Disorders Clinic at the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery (UCLH) in London, where I lead in neuropsychological service provision. I have normed and clinically validated two batteries of cognitive and language tests, with no reliance on spoken or written language, which are hosted online on the DCAL Test Portal.

My groundbreaking research into the phenomenology of voice hallucinations in people who are born deaf prompted new directions in the scientific questions asked about auditory verbal hallucinations generally, in particular that hallucinations may be more multimodal than previously assumed. This led to new collaboration between DCAL and Hearing the Voice Research Centre at Durham University.

Planned research will focus on healthy signers and those with visual disability, investigating the influence of sensory impairments and modality on internally generated language, inner speech and inner signing – which will inform models of source-monitoring and prediction in language processing and voice hallucinations.

I foresee a lifelong scientific career, conducting research on healthy signers and those with neurological impairments, enabling new theoretical perspectives to emerge, which would otherwise be overlooked if studies were limited to spoken languages; and building clinical services for this marginalised group. This combination allows direct translation of science into practice and has a positive societal impact for deaf people and the NHS. Better diagnosis, as a direct result of my work, improves health outcomes, allows a pathway for participant recruitment and opportunities for exciting new research. The methods I have developed are transferable with potential for international research and clinical development.

Scientists with disabilities are not well represented in academia. I hope to be able to make valuable contributions to science whilst also improving disability representation and diversity in academia.