Dr Hayley Mountford

PhD in Molecular Genetics, University of Melbourne (2016)

Post Doctoral Research Fellow

Department of Biological and Medical Sciences

Hayley Mountford

Role

I am an early career researcher in the Newbury lab. I use a range of bioinformatic and molecular biology techniques to study how genetics influences human learning through extreme traits. My main interests are:

  • how genetic variants underpin common neurodevelopmental conditions such as developmental language delay (DLD) and developmental coordination disorder (DCD), known as dyspraxia
  • studying the genetics that underlie 'super' face recognition

 

Areas of expertise

  • Molecular genetics
  • Developmental Language Disorders
  • Developmental coordination disorder
  • Dyspraxia
  • Face recognition
  • Next generation sequencing
  • Bioinformatics
  • Statistical genetics
  • Genetic diseases

Research

The Genetics of Developmental Coordination Disorder (Dyspraxia)

Most children master complex motor skills early in life. Within their first few years of school, they can tie their laces and hold a pencil. These fine motor movements form the basis for progressively more complex educational skills such as writing and communication, and are important for pastimes such as sports or music. However, for some children, these skills develop late or are not mastered at all, even when explicitly and extensively practised. These children are said to have Developmental Coordination Disorder (DCD) - a condition that affects at least one child in every classroom. For children with DCD, these motor coordination difficulties go beyond "being clumsy". They limit school achievement, impact cognitive development, can constrain career opportunities and increase the risk of mental health issues as an adult.

Even though DCD is very common, most people have never heard of it. We do not know what causes DCD or why some children with motor difficulties catch up while others struggle for life.

Our research investigates genetic differences to build a better picture of the factors that are important in motor coordination development and help us to understand which factors put some children at an increased risk of DCD. This, in turn, will help us to develop better ways to identify and help children who struggle with early motor milestones, and to understand how motor difficulties affect children with other neurodevelopmental disorders such as ADHD, ASD, DLD and dyslexia.

Speech Genetics (Robinson Crusoe Island)

Speech and language disorders are a common childhood developmental issue (7% of children) (Norbury et al. 2016) and result in an increased lifetime risk of mental health issues and poor life outcomes (Conti-Ramsden et al. 2008). Despite being so common, we understand little of the biology underpinning disorders of speech, however, it is becoming increasingly apparent that genetic risk, or susceptibility, plays an important role. The identification of genetic risk factors for speech and language disorder may also help explain why language ability is so often affected in related disorders such as autism spectrum disorder, developmental dyslexia, intellectual learning disability or ADHD.

Using recent advances in genetic technologies, I am investigating genetic contributions to speech and language disorders in the inhabitants of Robinson Crusoe Island (RCI), Chile. The island was colonised in the late 19th century, and is physically isolated, over 600km away, from the mainland. Most of the people who live there today are related to the original 62 founders. Two-thirds of Islander children have speech and language disorder, 10-fold higher than expected.

The Genetics of Face Recognition

We know there is something special about the way we interact with faces. From an early age, both animals and humans show a clear preference for faces over other visual stimuli - new-born babies will actively choose to look at images of faces (Goren et al 1975), and can identify their mother over other females after only two days (Bushnell 1989). The ability to discriminate between faces allows us to establish individual identity and plays an important role in human bonding and social exchange. The lack of ability to recognise peers by their faces often leads to struggles with social isolation and mental health issues. It is a fundamental and vital part of human behaviour, one which develops so early in our development, that we almost take it for granted. Despite it being pivotal to our success as a social species, we understand little of how the brain recognises faces, or which neuro-molecular pathways are involved in this essential process.

Super recognisers can recognise faces they have only glimpsed before. Most people can recognise about 20% of the faces they see, whereas a super recogniser can remember up to 95%. This super ability is thought to occur in less than 1% of the population.

Face recognition plays an important role in the Metropolitan Police who use super recognisers to identify suspects from CCTV footage. Following the 2011 London riots, a single super recogniser identified 190 suspects from grainy images and footage, in stark comparison with the Met’s state-of-the-art computer software that only successfully identified one.

In collaboration with Dr Josh Davis (University of Greenwich), we are studying the genetics of individuals with extreme face recognition ability - super recognisers.  For more information, see video on super-recognisers (The One Show, BBC 1 Scotland).

If you think you might be a super recogniser, click here to take the test at http://superrecognisers.com/.

 

Research grants and awards

2021-2022 - Rosetrees Trust Seedcorn Award ‘A network approach to identify genes that contribute to neurodevelopmental disorders.’ PI Dr Dianne Newbury, Co-I Dr Usha Kini, Co-I Dr Hayley Mountford - £10,000

2017-2021 - Leverhulme Trust Research Project Grant ‘Speaking Backwards – sdrawkcaB gnikaepS’. PI Dr Diane Newbury, named researcher Dr Hayley Mountford - £232,412

2017 - Oxford Brookes University Santander Research Scholarship Award Scheme - £1500

2011-2015 - Dora Lush Biomedical Post Graduate Research Scholarship, National Health and Medical Research Council - AU$78,750

2011 - 2015 - Australian Mitochondrial Disease Foundation scholarship top-up award - AU$15,750

2011-2014 - Australian Mitochondrial Disease Foundation student travel award - AU$9000

Publications

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