Research Projects

We are interested in how people control and adapt their behavior depending on the current situational or social context. We study this both on a very basic level („how do we control our motor actions?“) and on the more complex level of social interactions („how do we respond to social threat and regulate aggression?“). We use methods of experimental psychology together with functional imaging (fMRI) and EEG to identify relevant brain regions and electrophysiological signatures that are indicators of context evaluation and action control.

Neurobiology of reactive aggression

The overarching goal of our research is to better understand the neural, cognitive and affective processes underlying interindividual differences in the aggressive response to social threat and provocation. We study different levels of social threat, ranging from basic facial threat signals to interpersonal provocation in a competitive game. Questions, we address in our studies, are, for instance, what neural and cognitive/affective processes mediate the relation between social exclusion and aggression or how interindividual differences in hormonal levels (testosterone and cortisol) contribute to the neural and behavioral response to threat.

Collaborations: Katja Bertsch (University Clinic of Heidelberg), Karin Roelofs (Radboud University, Nijmegen), Anne-Kristin Solbakk (University of Oslo)

Effects of anger on understanding others

How does anger affect the understanding of others on a behavioral and neural level? We assume that anger makes a person less responsive to the perspective and emotions of others. In a series of behavioral, EEG and fMRI studies, we test the hypothesis that anger has detrimental effects on both routes to understanding others, “mentalizing” and “experience sharing” and on their neural bases, thereby leading to impaired understanding of emotions and intentions of other people.

Collaborations: Anat Perry (Hebrew University of Jerusalem)

Echophenomena in Gilles-de-la-Tourette Syndrome

Echophenomena, i.e., automatic imitation, belong to the core symptoms of GTS, being present in at least 20-30% of GTS patients. Using the theoretical framework of the Theory of Event Coding, we will examine whether echophenomena in GTS relate to altered action-perception coupling and its neural basis, most prominently the „mirror neuron system“. More generally, we will investigate whether echophenomena relate to an altered neural representation of other’s actions, sensations and emotions.

Collaborations: Sören Krach (Dept. of Psychiatry, Lübeck), Alexander Münchau (Institute for Neurogenetics, Lübeck), Christian Beste (University of Dresden)

Cognitive control of motor actions

Flexibly adapting and inhibiting one’s actions or urges, if inappropriate in the current context, is a hallmark of executive control. Impaired inhibitory control on the other hand is seen in a range of psychiatric disorders such as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder or obsessive-compulsive disorder and in neurological disorders such as Parkinson’s disease or in cases of brain tumor. The present project aims at investigating the neural basis and mechanisms of cognitive control and at yielding a better understanding of these patients’ behavioral deficits. The focus of the project will be on inhibitory motor control, i.e. on aspects of response selection and inhibition. We investigate proactive and reactive inhibitory control, using a combined behavioral and functional imaging approach in both healthy controls and brain lesion patients.

Collaborations: Robert T. Knight (UC Berkeley), Anne-Kristin Solbakk (University of Oslo)

Network analyses

A number of projects of the group focus on further developing and applying advanced analysis methods to assess functional and effective connectivity based on fMRI and electrophysiological data (EEG, ECoG). Methods include graph-theory based network analysis, independent component analysis (ICA), Dynamic Causal Modeling (DCM) and cross-frequency coupling. We apply these methods to study altered brain networks in neurological or psychiatric conditions such as Parkinson’s disease or Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and to investigate network dynamics underlying cognitive functions and motor control.