We are interested in the cognitive and affective processes that help us to understand and interact with others and how these processes are implemented in the brain. We study the interindividual and situational factors that play a role in empathy, action imitation and aggression and their neurobiological underpinnings. 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 social cognition and empathy.
Having a strong background in more “basic” cognitive neuroscience projects, we also study the electrophysiological correlates of cognitive control and action monitoring. In more methodological projects, we investigate functional and structural network measures and their sensitivity to experimental conditions and psychiatric or neurological disorders.
Impact of steroid hormones on brain networks of affective behavior
This project aims to investigate how steroid hormones organize human brain function beyond the presumption of a neural sexual dimorphism, studying two DSD groups — individuals with congenital adrenal hyperplasia (CAH) or complete androgen insensitivity syndrome (CAIS) — because they relate to the extreme ends of androgen exposure. The project will focus on affective behavior, as the neurobiological circuits underlying this behavior are rich in steroid hormone receptors and have been shown to be modulated by steroid hormone levels.
Effects of social presence on empathy
We are interested what difference it makes for social cognition, especially empathy whether interaction partners are physically present or only accessible through a medium like a video chat. In this project we explore the effects of social presence on our ability to accurately judge others pain and feel with them. Using electroencephalography, electrocardiography and electrodermal activity measurement, we also explore whether neural and physiological reactions to the pain of the other change during social presence.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.