The SDRC are committed to promoting and supporting researchers in the early stages of their career. This is why, we have put together a blog series featuring PhD students and ECRs from all disciplines. Read the series so far here

Read Laura McWhirter’s blog on research at the University of Edinburgh on understanding functional congnitive disorders.

I graduated MBChB from Edinburgh University in 2008, having taken an unusual route into medicine via a degree in music from York University. I completed specialist training in General Adult, Liaison and Neuropsychiatry in South East Scotland in 2018, obtaining both MRCP and MRCPsych along the way.

I have been an active member of the Edinburgh Functional Disorders Research Group, led by Professors Jon Stone and Alan Carson, since 2013. My previous research has been on topics including abnormalities in somatosensory attention in people with functional neurological disorders, transcranial magnetic stimulation as a potential treatment for functional motor disorders, the history of electrotherapy for functional disorders, and foreign accent syndrome: a rare disorder in which a person develops a ‘foreign’ accent, sometimes after a stroke or other neurological illness, but often in the context of a functional disorder.

 Since June 2018 I have been employed as Baillie Gifford Clinical Research Fellow with Edinburgh Dementia Prevention, Centre for Clinical Brain Sciences, University of Edinburgh. Building on my previous work in functional neurological disorders, I am undertaking a PhD investigating functional cognitive disorders under the supervision of Professors Craig Ritchie, Alan Carson, and Jon Stone.

 Functional cognitive disorders are conditions in which cognitive symptoms are present, often associated with distress and functional impairment, but which are caused not by structural or degenerative brain disease but rather by functional disruption to normal brain functions. We often say that in a functional neurological disorder there is a ‘software’ problem, rather than a ‘hardware’ problem. Our clinical experience and review of the literature suggests that nearly a quarter of people presenting to clinics for assessment of cognitive symptoms have functional cognitive disorders, which are therefore an important differential diagnosis to be considered in people with possible dementia.

Recruitment is now underway to our clinical study (‘Improving Diagnosis in Cognitive Disorders’), through which we aim to identify ways of identifying those people presenting to memory clinics who have  memory symptoms caused by functional cognitive disorders rather than by degenerative brain disease. We also hope to examine the prevalence of cognitive symptoms in normal healthy people, so that we might better understand what cognitive symptoms are ‘normal’.

This is exciting and relatively unexplored territory, and I am delighted to be able to spend this time developing as an independent researcher at this stage in my career. Improving our understanding functional cognitive disorders will allow us in future to investigate better treatments for those affected, and, importantly, will also help to improve the accuracy of clinical diagnoses of dementia.

Find out more about Laura here 

Edinburgh university profile page:

Twitter: @lauramcw

Research info:

IDCD study protocol available online at:

 Information about functional neurological disorders available at: