Imperial College London

Maria Balaet

Faculty of MedicineDepartment of Brain Sciences

Research Postgraduate
 
 
 
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Contact

 

m.balaet17

 
 
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Location

 

Burlington DanesHammersmith Campus

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Summary

 

Summary

Maria joined the Department of Brain Sciences at Imperial College London in 2017. Her work is multidisciplinary and involves multivariate and machine learning methods to analyse cognitive, neuroimaging, fixed item and free text survey data to answer key questions about the human brain in health, disease and under the influence of either therapeutic or recreational drugs. 

During her PhD she was supervised by Professor Adam Hampshire and Professor Paresh Malhotra and focused on understanding how cognition differs from the normative population in a specific set of clinical groups, namely in Parkinson's Disease and REM sleep behavioural disorder. For this purpose she collaborated with Professor Michele Hu and her team at the University of Oxford on enrolling patients part of the Oxford Discovery Cohort onto the Cognitron platform where they participated in a comprehensive computerised cognitive assessments. The data collected during this project was then used to characterise specific cognitive deficits in the two clinical groups in detail and also to create a short and easy to deploy battery of cognitive tasks that can pick up these deficits in individual patients with high sensitivity. This battery is now used in a number of studies across the UK, as well as internationally. 

While at Imperial College, Maria has also been a key member of the Great British Intelligence Test (GBIT) project led by Professor Adam Hampshire. During this project, a subset of ~140k (out of over 500k participants originally recruited) British individuals were monitored longitudinally at 6-monthly timepoints between December 2019-January 2023. GBIT gave her the opportunity to lead an arm of the study investigating drug consumption and use super-scale comprehensive cognitive testing and established mental health assessments longitudinally to understand:
1) how COVID-19 impacted recreational drug consumption patterns in the UK general population
2) how these fluctuations have in turn impacted the cognitive performance, mental health and lifestyle of recreational drug users
3) what are the key fundamental differences in terms of mental health and cognitive performance between those who are drug users vs. those who never used drugs
4) are users of certain classes of drugs (e.g. psychedelics) more resilient or able to excel in certain cognitive domains compared to those who are users of other drugs or have never used drugs?

As part of the GBIT project she also developed natural language processing algorithms for understanding from participants' own words the underlying reasoning for being sceptical about the government and mainstream COVID-19 narrative during the pandemic and how their opinions related to their behaviour and compliance with containment guidelines.

Since 2020 she has been running an online study on the Cognitron platform to further our understanding of how psychedelics acutely impact cognition: https://psychedelics.cognitron.co.uk . This study is still recruiting participants who are under the influence of a psychedelic drug and wish to play cognitive tasks during that time to help scientists understand how brain processes such as attention, memory, problem solving and language are affected.

Finally, Maria is also involved in teaching at Imperial College - as a tutor and project supervisor for the Translational Neuroscience MSc and Experimental Neuroscience MRes, is a mentor for In2Science UK and regularly carries out public outreach and engagement events to make scientific knowledge available to the wider general public. Notably, she was one of the scientists behind the scenes for the TV series Family Brain Games created based on the Cognitron Brain Testing Technology (https://www.cognitron.co.uk) and streamed on BBC2. She has also delivered over 50 public talks on the science behind commonly used recreational drugs (e.g. psychedelics) in the past year alone with an emphasis on drawing empirically based conclusions and practicing harm reduction, making her one of the key science communicators on this topic in the UK. 

Her work is supported by a prestigious award from the Medical Research Council Doctoral Training Programme received in February 2019. 

BBC Two - The Family Brain Games

On the set of Family Brain Games.
From left to right: Dr Gus Zimmermann, Prof Adam Hampshire, Dr Hannah Critchlow, Dara O Briain, PhDc. Maria Balaet, Ms Astrid Crowley

Source: BBC (https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m00062jk) 

ImagePublic Lecture invited by Seed Talks at Camp&Furnace in Liverpool.

Source: Maria Ionescu

Invited Talk at Psychedelic Science 2023 in Denver, Colorado, marking a historic gathering on the topic of psychedelics totalling more than 15k attendees.

Presenting one of the products of her PhD, a computerised cognitive testing battery sensitive to REM sleep behavioural disorder and Parkinson's disease at the 2023 IRBDSG meeting hosted at The Neuro Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital, McGill University

Publications

Journals

Sharpe BT, Smith MS, Williams SCR, et al., 2023, Cognition and lifeguard detection performance, Applied Cognitive Psychology, ISSN:0888-4080

Balaet M, Kurtin D, Gruia D, et al., 2023, Mapping the sociodemographic distribution and self-reported justifications for non-compliance with COVID-19 guidelines in the UK, Frontiers in Psychology, Vol:14, ISSN:1664-1078, Pages:1-18

Balaet M, Trender W, Hellyer P, et al., 2023, Associations between the use of psychedelics and other recreational drugs with mental health and resilience during the COVID-19 pandemic, Frontiers in Psychiatry, Vol:14, ISSN:1664-0640, Pages:1-14

Del Giovane M, Trender WR, Bălăeţ M, et al., 2023, Computerised cognitive assessment in patients with traumatic brain injury: an observational study of feasibility and sensitivity relative to established clinical scales, Eclinicalmedicine, Vol:59, ISSN:2589-5370

Balaet M, 2022, Psychedelic Cognition – the unreached frontier of psychedelic science, Frontiers in Neuroscience, Vol:16, ISSN:1662-453X

More Publications