Professor Barbara J Sahakian

Subject: Cognitive and behavioural neuroscience; clinical and veterinary neuroscience

Department/institutions: Department of Psychiatry

Contact details:

Research interests:

Professor Barbara J Sahakian, DSc, FBA, FMedSci Psychiatric disorders (for example, schizophrenia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder and depression) are disorders of cognition, motivation and their interaction. Impaired cognition in psychiatric disorders includes problems in attention, learning, memory and decision-making. In schizophrenia, these tend to be the biggest barriers to good functional outcome and wellbeing rather than the psychiatric symptoms, such as hallucinations and delusions, which can be treated with antipsychotic drugs. Professor Barbara Sahakian’s laboratory aims to detect cognitive dysfunction using sensitive neuropsychological tests.

For assessing cognition, motivation and wellbeing and functionality in daily living, she uses objective computerised tests that she has co-invented, CANTAB and EMOTICOM, as well as subjective rating scales. CANTAB is used for assessing primarily ‘cold’ or non-emotional cognitive function, whereas EMOTICOM is for measuring ‘hot’ or social and emotional cognition.

Professor Sahakian’s laboratory also focuses on improving cognition, motivation and wellbeing in people with neurodegenerative conditions and psychiatric disorders. There are two main approaches that she takes: one is pharmacological and includes the use of cognitive-enhancing drugs, such as modafinil and methylphenidate; the other is psychological and includes cognitive training. Professor Sahakian has developed novel methods for delivering cognitive training by using app games on iPads and iPhones. In her studies with people with schizophrenia or amnestic mild cognitive impairment (aMCI), she has found that memory, global functioning and motivation improve after training with ‘Wizard’ or ‘Game Show’.

A future focus of her laboratory will be investigating impaired cognitive plasticity and goal-directed control in adolescents with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Professor Sahakian has recently found that adolescents with OCD have substantial learning impairments and she plans to identify the reasons for these and how they impact on functioning at school. Another future aim of her laboratory is to develop approaches to improving cognition and wellbeing across the lifespan in healthy people.

Barbara J Sahakian is Professor of Clinical Neuropsychology at the University of Cambridge Department of Psychiatry and Behavioural and Clinical Neuroscience Institute. She is also an Honorary Clinical Psychologist at Addenbrooke’s Hospital, and a Fellow of the British Academy and the Academy of Medical Sciences. She is a Past President of the British Association for Psychopharmacology and the International Neuroethics Society, and was a Member of the International Expert Jury for the 2017 Else Kröner-Fresenius-Stiftung Prize.

Professor Sahakian has an international reputation in the fields of psychopharmacology, neuropsychology, neuropsychiatry, neuroimaging and neuroethics. She is best known for her work on ‘hot’ and ‘cold’ cognitive deficits in depression, and early detection and early treatment with cholinesterase inhibitors in Alzheimer’s disease. She has more than 400 publications in scientific journals and a Hirsch (h) index of 109.

Professor Sahakian co-invented the neuropsychological CANTAB and EMOTICOM tests and the Cambridge University PEAK Memory Training: Wizard game. She has contributed to neuroscience and mental health policy, including: the UK government’s Foresight Project on Mental Capital and Wellbeing (Beddington et al., Nature, 2008); the strategy for mental health for the Medical Research Council (Sahakian et al., The Lancet, 2010); and the Grand Challenges in Global Mental Health (Collins et al., Nature, 2011). She is also on the committee for the Strategy for Neuroscience and Mental Health for the Department of Health.

In March 2017, Professor Sahakian participated in the Global Council on Brain Health meeting in Washington, DC. She has also spoken at the World Economic Forum, Davos, in 2014, is a member of the World Economic Forum on the Future of Neurotechnologies and Brain Science, and is on the clinical advisory board of the Human Brain Project.

She is co-author of Bad Moves and Sex, Lies and Brain Scans (see below), and has co-edited The Oxford Handbook of Neuroethics.

Select publications:

  • B J Sahakian and J N Labuzetta, Bad Moves: How Decision-making Goes Wrong and the Ethics of Smart Drugs, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013)
  • B J Sahakian and J Gottwald, Sex, Lies, and Brain Scans: How fMRI Reveals What Really Goes on in Our Minds, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017)
  • T W Robbins and B J Sahakian, eds., Translational Neuropsychopharmacology: Current Topics in Behavioral Neurosciences, (Switzerland: Springer International Publishing, 2016)