Irina Baetu

Irina Baetu

Senior Lecturer

School of Psychology

Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences

Eligible to supervise Masters and PhD - email supervisor to discuss availability.


Cognitive Neural Sciences Laboratory   CNS logo

We are broadly interested in cognition and emotion and their neural underpinnings. We investigate how we learn from our experiences and how this learning guides our choices, as well as how we are able to exert cognitive control. These abilities are critical to our everyday functioning since making optimal decisions based on past experience ensures that we maximise positive outcomes and minimise aversive consequences. We study how these abilities change during ageing and in Parkinson’s disease. We are especially interested in discovering genetic variation that may help us preserve these abilities, as this might help the development of new treatments for cognitive decline. We are also interested in emotion, both negative and positive. For example, we study how learning from negative experiences influences feelings of anxiety, and how music can be tailored to optimise positive emotions.


Dr Irina Baetu
Prof Nick Burns
Nathan Beu
Lauren Heidenreich
Salvatore Russo
Brittany Child
Nathan Jones


Dr Lyndsey Collins-Praino
A/Prof Sarah Cohen-Woods
Dr Oren Griffiths
Prof Mark Jenkinson
A/Prof Ahmed Moustafa

Current projects
Learning and decision-making changes over the course of healthy ageing and in Parkinson’s disease

Our genome makes each of us unique, which means we have different strengths and different weaknesses. Because of this, our cognitive abilities are impacted differently as we age, or if we are affected by a brain disorder such as Parkinson’s disease. As a result, we may require different treatment approaches if we experience cognitive dysfunction. But our knowledge of genetic influences on cognition is still in its infancy, which limits our capacity to tailor our treatments to each individual. Therefore, we investigate the relationship between people’s genetic makeup and their cognitive abilities. We focus in particular on healthy ageing and Parkinson’s disease. We investigate not only how genetic mutations influence the extent to which people’s cognition is affected by ageing or by the disease, but also, in the case of patients, how they respond to medication. This gives us important clues for developing more effective treatments for cognitive dysfunction that take into account individual differences, and we hope this knowledge will be useful for treating other brain disorders too.


Mechanisms underlying response inhibition and cognitive control

We also investigate motor functions, including action selection and inhibition. The ability to inhibit prepotent responses, in particular, is considered a core executive function that seems to be compromised in a number of disorders. We investigate cognitive processes that contribute to response inhibition, such as fluctuations in attention associated with error processing, which allows us to gain a deeper understanding of individual differences in performance and the factors that contribute to suboptimal performance.

Beu, N., Burns, N., & Baetu, I. (2019). Polymorphisms in dopaminergic genes predict proactive processes of response inhibition. European Journal of Neuroscience, 49(9), 1127-1148. We show that slowing response speed after an error, a potential compensatory strategy when response inhibition fails, can be predicted by age, intelligence, and genetic variation in dopaminergic genes.

Graphical abstract Beu 2018








Learning processes and individual differences

Learning from past experience is one of our most fundamental abilities: We detect regularities in our environment, which enables us to predict future events, plan actions, and guide our attention to the most relevant stimuli in our environment. Although everyone seems to be capable of such learning, there are known differences in the way people learn associations. For instance, genes that affect the expression of certain chemicals and receptors in the brain seem to influence the ability to form new memories. The ability to learn associations also depends upon basic stimulus processing abilities, which are typically measured in the field of intelligence and psychometric testing. Furthermore, people who suffer from certain clinical disorders, such as schizophrenia and anxiety, differ in the way they learn new associations. We use computational models to simulate individual differences in learning, with the aim to gain a deeper understanding of the mechanisms that generate differences in memory performance.

Baetu, I., Pitcher, J., Cohen-Woods, S., Lancer, B., Beu, N., Foreman, L., Taylor, P., & Burns, N. (2018). Polymorphisms that affect GABA neurotransmission predict processing of aversive prediction errors in humans. NeuroImage, 176, 176-192. Our results suggest that genetic variation in GABAergic genes influences learning from negative experiences by affecting the processing of aversive prediction errors.
Graphical abstract Baetu 2018











Laing, P., Burns, N., & Baetu, I. (2019). Individual differences in anxiety and fear learning: The role of working memory capacity. Acta Psychologica, 193, 42-54. We show that working memory capacity moderates the relationship between fear learning and anxiety.

Graphical abstract Laing 2018










Individual differences in motor sequence learning

We recently developed a new motor sequence learning task that assesses learning via both changes in reaction time and accuracy (Urry, Burns & Baetu, 2015), potentially overcoming some of the drawbacks of the serial reaction time task, the typical test used to assess sequence learning. Using computational modelling, we demonstrated that learning from prediction errors (the discrepancy between the experienced versus anticipated feedback) in this task correlates with polymorphisms in the dopamine D1 and D2 receptor genes (Baetu, Burns, Urry, Barbante & Pitcher, 2015), providing a potential mechanism through which the dopamine system might contribute to sequence learning. We are now using this task to further explore how genetic variation influences motor learning during the course of healthy ageing and in Parkinson’s disease, as well as to investigate which aspects of motor learning are affected by transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) to the motor cortex.

Motor sequence learning task


Urry, K., Burns, N., & Baetu, I. (2015). Accuracy-based measures provide a better measure of sequence learning than reaction time-based measures. Frontiers in Psychology, 6, 1158-1-1158-14. Paper describing our new motor sequence learning task.

Baetu, I., Burns, N., Urry, K., Barbante, G., & Pitcher, J. (2015). Commonly-occurring polymorphisms in the COMT, DRD1 and DRD2 genes influence different aspects of motor sequence learning in humans. Neurobiology of Learning and Memory, 125, 176-188. We show that dopamine D1 and D2 receptor genes influence learning to select versus inhibit action plans, consistent with the classical basal ganglia model of action selection.

Urry, K., Burns, N., & Baetu, I. (2018). Age-related differences in sequence learning: Findings from two visuo-motor sequence learning tasks. British Journal of Psychology, 109(4), 830-849. Our results suggest that motor sequence learning does decline with age, but the more typically used reaction time measures may fail to detect this decline because of their poorer reliability.


Learning-driven changes in attention

Learning to associate a neutral stimulus with an important event often results in changes in the way the neutral stimulus is processed and attended to. This project investigates learning-related changes in attention to stimuli that signal important outcomes. Although this is a well-established phenomenon, the mechanism(s) that drive these changes in stimulus processing are still debated. The aim is to test theories of attention (Esber & Haselgrove, 2011; Le Pelley, 2004; Mackintosh, 1975; Pearce & Hall, 1980) using both behavioural indices and event-related potentials that reflect changes in stimulus processing.

Russo, S., Burns, N., & Baetu, I. (in press). Mackintosh, Pearce-Hall and time: An EEG study on inhibition of return. Biological Psychology. New study showing that attention may dynamically change over time, with reliable predictors attracting attention before stimuli that have unpredictable consequences.


Music and emotion 

More recently, we have begun investigating positive emotion (deviating ‘slightly’ from our more traditional study of fear learning and anxiety!). We are particularly interested in non-invasive and cost-effective ways to improve emotion and wellbeing, such as music. We are creating new music for this purpose, which enables us to independently manipulate different features, such as the valence of the lyrics. Measuring emotion is also an important aspect of this project and we are attempting some innovative measures such as analysing voice patterns using machine learning algorithms and brain activity recorded via EEG.


Linking genetics to individual differences in fear learning (Australian Genome Research Facility - client story)

New funding to study Parkinson’s disease (NeuroSurgical Research Foundation and University of Adelaide  links)

New research from Nathan Jones showing that the effect of music on emotion and wellbeing depends on lyrics (The Advertiser


  • Appointments

    Date Position Institution name
    2015 - ongoing Senior Lecturer University of Adelaide
    2014 - 2017 ARC Discovery Early Career Researcher University of Adelaide
    2011 - 2014 Lecturer University of Adelaide
    2010 - 2011 Postdoctoral Researcher, funded by the Fonds Québécois de la Recherche sur la Nature et les Technologies University of Cambridge
  • Awards and Achievements

    Date Type Title Institution Name Country Amount
    2010 Award New Investigator Award American Psychological Association, Division of Experimental Psychology United States -
  • Education

    Date Institution name Country Title
    2010 McGill University Canada PhD in Psychology
    2001 McGill University Canada BSc (Major in Psychology, Minor Concentration in German Studies)
  • Research Interests

Grants and Funding
2020-2023 Forecasting Impairment and Neurodegenerative Disease risk following Traumatic Brain Injury (FIND-TBI): A computational neurology-driven method to predict long-term prognosis Collins-Praino L; Jenkinson M; Baetu I; Wells A; Gandy S; Turner R; Corrigan F; Helmy A; Mittinty N Medical Research Future Fund $1.98M
2019-2022 The evolution of decision-making impairment in Parkinson’s disease: Prediction and prevention Collins-Praino L; Baetu I; Cohen-Woods S; Burns N; Griffiths O James and Diana Ramsey Foundation $220K

Investigating differences in decision-making ability in older adults: Computational modelling and neurogenetics of the basal ganglia

Baetu I; Collins-Praino L; Cohen-Woods S; Moustafa A; Burns N Discovery Project, Australian Research Council $443K
2014-2017 Associative learning and fluid intelligence: Computational and neurogenetic analyses Baetu I. Discovery Early Career Researcher Award, Australian Research Council $395K
Current teaching
Psychology 1A - Learning module
Foundations of Health & Lifespan Development
Learning & Behaviour
Honours in Psychology
  • Current Higher Degree by Research Supervision (University of Adelaide)

    Date Role Research Topic Program Degree Type Student Load Student Name
    2022 Principal Supervisor Development of a New Cognitive Reserve Measure: Implications for Parkinson’s Disease and Traumatic Brain Injury Doctor of Philosophy Doctorate Full Time Mr Isaac Calvin Saywell
    2021 Co-Supervisor The Role of the Substantia Nigra in predicting longitudinal non-motor changes in Parkinson's Disease Doctor of Philosophy Doctorate Full Time Mr Benjamin Paul Ellul
    2021 Co-Supervisor “Utility of Inflammatory Biomarkers to Predict Brainstem Imaging Changes in Parkinson’s Disease and TBI” Doctor of Philosophy Doctorate Full Time Mr Angus McNamara
    2019 Principal Supervisor The Impact of Music and Lyrics on Emotion Doctor of Philosophy Doctorate Part Time Mr Nathan Leigh Jones
    2018 Principal Supervisor An Exploration of the Role of Working Memory in Associative Learning Doctor of Philosophy Doctorate Part Time Miss Brittany Dorothy Amelia Child
    2017 Principal Supervisor COVID-19 related cognitive impairment: Underlying mechanisms and protective factors Doctor of Philosophy Doctorate Part Time Ms Lauren Mary Heidenreich
  • Past Higher Degree by Research Supervision (University of Adelaide)

    Date Role Research Topic Program Degree Type Student Load Student Name
    2020 - 2024 Co-Supervisor Investigating the impact of individual differences and stress on decision-making performance under threat Master of Philosophy (Medical Science) Master Part Time Mr Manuel Salazar
    2017 - 2020 Principal Supervisor Investigating the Temporal Dynamics of Covert Visual Spatial Attention: Exploitative and Explorative Attentional Mechanisms Doctor of Philosophy Doctorate Full Time Mr Salvatore Simone Russo
    2016 - 2020 Co-Supervisor A Dual-Process Model of Response Inhibition: Insights from a Neurocognitive Perspective Doctor of Philosophy Doctorate Full Time Mr Nathan Daniel Beu
    2014 - 2017 Co-Supervisor Seeing Reason: Visuospatial Ability, Sex Differences and the Raven's Progressive Matrices Doctor of Philosophy Doctorate Full Time Miss Nicolette Amanda Reed Waschl
  • Position: Senior Lecturer
  • Phone: 83136102
  • Email:
  • Campus: North Terrace
  • Building: Hughes, floor 5
  • Org Unit: Psychology

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