UCL Institute of Ophthalmology

Prof Jan Atkinson

Prof Jan Atkinson

Emeritus Professor of Psychology

Div of Psychology & Lang Sciences

Faculty of Brain Sciences

Joined UCL
1st Oct 1993

Research summary

Jan Atkinson’s research is wide ranging. She is an international expert on typical and atypical human visual development in infants and children, with extensive research on Williams Syndrome, and  cerebral visual impairment (e.g. very premature birth). She has directed the Visual Development Unit (VDU-Cambridge/UCL/Oxford) supported mainly by the UK Medical Research Council, an interdisciplinary team in psychology, cognitive neuroscience,  paediatric ophthalmology, optometry, neonatology and paediatric neurology.

She pioneered new behavioural, electrophysiological (VEP, ERP, multi-electrode EEG) and brain imaging (MRI) methods and techniques. She put forward one of the first neurobiological models of  visual brain development,  showing the timescale of onset of functioning in different modules within visual cortex. She has measured the trajectories in early life for development of acuity, contrast sensitivity, pattern processing, binocularity, orientation and motion sensitivity, accommodation and visual attention, with many of her tests being predictive for later visual cognition.

Later she extended this model to plot the developmental trajectory for the ventral stream (for global static form and pattern sensitivity) and dorsal stream (for global motion coherence and visuomotor actions). She proposed the influential hypothesis of ‘dorsal stream vulnerability’, identified through relatively poor global motion sensitivity, and associated spatial, visuomotor, and attention deficits. She first identified these deficits in studies of over 200 children with Williams syndrome, and later found these same problems in children born very pematurely.  There is now evidence for dorsal stream vulnerability  in many children with autism, Down syndrome, Fragile X, cerebral palsy  and  perinatal brain insults (HIE /focal lesions). Her team have invented many tests for identifying early visual disorders including the Cambridge Crowding Cards (acuity), the ‘Atkinson Battery of Child Development to Examine Functional Vision - ABCDEFV’, the ECAB - Early Child Attention Battery – a new preschool battery measuring selective, sustained and executive control of attention (now redesigned as  an iPad app), and  the ‘Ball in the Grass Test’ (measuring form and motion coherence sensitivity ). 

Her team invented the paediatric isotropic photo- and video-refractor (VPR1, Clemente Clarke International) .  Using these instruments she directed two infant vision screening programmes (8000+ infants),the first of their kind,  identifying refractive errors and including controlled trials of infant refractive correction with spectacles which was shown to reduce common disorders of strabismus and amblyopia.

Current collaborative studies include:

- Oxford University  RCT of dietary intervention for infants at risk of cerebral palsy. 

- PLING study, (UCSD) assessing individual differences in typically developing children showing links between motion sensitivity, structural brain development (MRI),  and spatial and maths ability, thus extending  the concept of ‘dorsal stream vulnerability’.

-  University of Rome: Development of the Italian version of the Early Child Attention Battery

- University of Brescia:  Visual-motor, visuocognitive and attention development in children with Developmental Coordination Disorder

- Anglia Ruskin University (Cambridge): Using the ECAB battery to study the development  of attention in Williams syndrome compared to Down Syndrome.

Her work always aims to develop neurobiological models of developing brain mechanisms underlying children’s abilities and difficulties, linking visual development to adult research in cognitive neuroscience, ophthalmology  and neurology, assessing visual disorders and finding effective treatments.

Teaching summary

Teaching Summary

Janette Atkinson is a dedicated teacher. She has taught undergraduate and graduate courses to students in Neuroscience, Psychology and Medicine in UCL, University of California San Diego, Cambridge University, and Oxford University.  Topics have included Visual Development, Developmental Psychology, and Introduction to Psychology for Medical Students.  She has organized live demonstrations of infant and child behaviour as a teaching aid in many of these courses. She has also contributed to postgraduate medical teaching in the UCL Institutes of Child Health, Neurology, and Ophalmology, UCLH and the Hammersmith Hospital, to professional courses for Clinical Neuropsychology, and to a number of courses on Paediatric Neurology in the UK and Italy.

She was the UCL Director of Teaching and Learning in the Faculty of Life Sciences (DUTLULS) coordinating the teaching of undergraduate degree courses across the medical and life sciences departments.       



Janette Atkinson is an Emeritus Professor in UCL’s Faculty of Brain Sciences, and a visiting professor in the University of Oxford.
She is an elected Fellow of the British Academy, the Academy of Medical Sciences and the Academia Europaea.  She was awarded a Young Inventor’s Award (Medical Research Council, 1989), the Distinguished Speaker’s Medal  (School of Optometry, Ohio State University, 1992),  the  Kurt Koffka Medal, for major advances in developmental psychology, (Giessen University, 2009 and the Davida Teller Award (Visual Sciences Society, 2016).  These honours are in recognition of her contribution to understanding of typical and atypical development of vision and visual cognition. She is Vice-Chair of the National Professional Committee for the UK Williams Syndrome Foundation. 

Following her Ph.D in adult vision in Cambridge University, she moved into developmental vision research, following the birth of her first child (a participant and co-author on Janette’s first developmental paper, published in Nature). She then established the Visual Development Unit (VDU) initially in Cambridge University, moving to UCL in 1993, with a second Unit in Oxford University from 2003. Her research has been supported by five MRC 5-year programme grants and additional project grants, together with support from the universities, ESRC, Wellcome Trust, Williams Syndrome Foundation and Leverhulme Trust. 
Currently, she continues research with colleagues and students in UCL Division of Psychology and Language Sciences, UCL Institute of Ophthalmology, Oxford University’s Departments of Experimental Psychology and Paediatrics, and collaborations with teams in the Center for Human Development (University of California, San Diego), the clinical paediatric teams in the University of Pisa, University of Rome and University of  Brescia, and Department of Psychology in Anglia Ruskin University (Cambridge).   

She has had research collaborations in Europe, USA and Asia including working with Francis Crick, Ursula Bellugi, Bela Julesz, Stuart Anstis, Howard Egeth, Joan Stiles, Terry Jernigan, Giovanni Cioni, Concetta Morrone, David Burr and Eugenio Mercuri. She has collaborated  with many clinical colleagues in ophthalmology, optometry, neonatology and paediatric neurology,  disseminating her research findings to academics,  medical and educational  professionals, and to the families who have participated in her studies.

As well as a pioneer of developmental research, she is a strong supporter of women researchers, and their professional development, through extensive mentoring and her work in Athena SWAN as both an elected member of the national Athena SWAN Steering Committee and UCL’s first Athena SWAN Ambassador/Coordinator. She led UCL to be one of the first twelve UK university signatories of the Athena SWAN Charter and achieve an Award; she went on to encourage many in UCL’s STEM faculties and departments to work towards and achieve SWAN Awards. In 2010, at the request of the Provost, she compiled a report on UCL Women in Leadership and Management, with recommendations for achieving the goal that all UCL women  reach their full potential. She has been selected for an exhibition of women at UCL who have been a source of inspiration and encouragement.
She is also a strong supporter of international collaboration in higher education, having been the first UCL Pro-Provost for North America.
Alongside her work, Janette is a dedicated mother of four children (2 girls and 2 boys) with Oliver Braddick (her husband and research partner) and grandmother of 6 grandchildren (so far).