Faculty & PhD Projects

Faculty & PhD Projects

All involved faculty members investigate neural substrates of cognitive domains and are determined to intensify their cooperation within “topic clusters” to provide students with the opportunity to approach their research questions interdisciplinarily. We intend to investigate how different cognitive domains are connected, i.e. “cognitive connectedness”. Specifically, we are interested to what extend cognitive constructs shared among mental domains of the different research areas correspond to common neuronal activations or representations in the brain. For example, neural networks such as the “numerical” and the “linguistic brain” are deemed responsible for quite different domains, but both of them need to explicitly represent identity: (a) for processing equations in mathematics (i.e., the expression on each side of the equation sign represents the same, identical number) and (b) for simple identity statements like “Susi’s mother is the teacher.”

The question we would ask in the DK in this example is: Are these identity processes dealt with separately in each domain-specific neural network or do they share a common brain region that specialises in identity computation?

Within the DK there are five “topic clusters”

All faculty members enjoy excellent world-wide connections representing a source for scientific exchange, study stays abroad and international job prospects for DK alumni.

Univ.-Prof. Dr. Manuel Schabus (Programme Speaker)

Project 1: Information processing during sleep
This PhD project focusses on “offline” information processing in the auditory processing domain in healthy adults from conscious wakefulness to unconscious sleep. Recent research using EEG has shown that during sleep, that is in the absence of waking consciousness, the human brain is still able to process acoustic stimuli to a considerable extent. More specifically, the brain continues to differentiate especially among paralinguistic emotional stimulus characteristics during all non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep stages as well as during REM sleep, that is a state in which processing had previously been thought to be in a “closed loop” (i.e. in which it is limited to processing of internally generated but not external/sensory information). We intend to follow up on these lines using hdEEG and MEG.

Project 2: Fetal programming and high-density baby EEG
This project focusses on the formation of prenatal memory as well as the early development of cognition and attachment. In particular, the project will focus on auditory processing of (prenatally acquired) familiar and unfamiliar stimuli in newborns and toddlers. Today it is well-known that even newborns have considerable cognitive resources. They for example prefer their mother’s voice over that of female strangers and can discriminate between different languages at birth. Because these astonishing cognitive abilities are observed a few hours after birth already, they are likely to be developed already before birth. In the current project we intend to focus on early auditory processing and the formation of memories using hdEEG, ECG and videography.  Moreover, the earliest stages of development of cognitive abilities and attachment are thought to be significantly influenced by maternal strain (including stress, depression or anxiety) during pregnancy wherefore we intend to also focus on these aspects throughout our upcoming studies.

Univ.-Prof. Dr. Josef Perner (Deputy Speaker)

Project 1: Connecting Theory of Mind with mathematics
Domain specific networks have to interact with their in- and output. We ask the question whether networks also might share parts of their internal processing by outsourcing specific computations to common experts. This puts a limit on their modularity. As a paradigm case we look for shared expert identity processing in the numerical and social brain. A long tradition in philosophy of language and logics from Frege (18) to mental files (Recanati 2012) has shown that identity statements like “Phosphorus is Hesperus,” despite their innocuous linguistic appearance, demand meta-representational/meta-cognitive processing. The same holds true for mathematical equations and is claimed for representing differences of perspective, e.g., false beliefs and visual appearances. The common need for meta-representational processing makes it plausible that all these domains recruit a specialist for that purpose.

Project 2: Memory systems and file management
We try to clarify how the established distinction between episodic (recollective) and semantic (familiarity based) recognition memory relates to the distinctions made by mental files theory. It allows for three types of recognition. We test whether these types activate brain regions associated with the traditional memory systems. Mental files theory can distinguish three relevant ways of recognizing a familiar individual: upon reencountering the individual (1) its mental file is reactivated (immediate recognition); (2) a new file is created and after memory search (recollection) produces an existing file and the two files have to be linked (representing the identity of the encountered individual with the familiar individual); (3) a new file is created but no existing file is found, but the individual looks familiar. The new file classifies the individual as familiar. Case (2) captures recollection and (3) familiarity.

Univ.-Prof. Dr. Jens Blechert

Project 1: Emotion regulation and emotional eating
This project focusses on the role of stress and emotion regulation during the exposure to appetitive food cues. The described foodApproach task will be conducted under the influence of negative emotions as well as in a neutral state. This will reveal whether and how the cognitive control of task requirements and emotion regulation compete for neural resources.

Project 2: Food reward and behavioral approach
This PhD project focusses on a new task for measuring implicit food approach (foodApproach). Food craving undermines self-control through partially implicit and automatic approach responses to food cues. Healthy eating behavior, by contrast, is the result of a set of executive functions, including attentional control, response inhibition, and planning. Concurrent stress and negative emotions decrease the efficacy of these functions since mental resources are consumed by emotion regulation. The foodApproach project studies the ability of individuals to inhibit prepotent motor responses to foods images via go nogo and approach avoidance tasks using behavioral response times and EEG.

Assoc.-Prof. Dr. Kerstin Hoedlmoser

Project 1: Memory consolidation/reactivation during sleep
This PhD project embedded within the new DK+ period will focus on the relationships between brain activity recorded during motor skill learning/adaptation, subsequent sleep and overnight performance changes. We want to assess whether learning related brain changes are actually taken up by the sleeping brain and consequently exert an influence on overnight performance changes. We expect overnight-changes in learning-dependent EEG coherence, reflecting the ‘strength’ of functional interactions between cortical areas.

Project 2: How SMART is it to go to bed with the PHONE?
The use of electronic devices with blue-enriched light for reading, communication, and entertainment has increased immensely – especially in children and adolescents. Accumulating empirical evidence indicates that blue light exposure before going to bed disturbs sleep function. Therefore, we are interested in whether sleep-related memory consolidation processes are affected by blue light exposure during bedtime in an adolescent population. The main objective of this project is to focus on three research questions: (1) Does blue light exposure (via smartphone) before falling asleep affect sleep physiology (sleep spindles, slow oscillations, REM) and, consequently, is there a protective effect of orange filter screens on sleep?; (2) Is smartphone light powerful enough to initiate changes in circadian timing (melatonin/cortisol secretion and body temperature)?; and (3) Does smartphone blue light impact consecutive sleep-dependent declarative memory consolidation (as there is a disturbance/change in sleep physiology) as well as affective functioning?

Univ.-Prof. Dr. Florian Hutzler

Cognitive Connectedness & Reverse Inference

How do we establish cognitive connectedness? The working definition in this DK programme implies that connected processes share (at least partly) a common neural substrate. Such a common neural substrate, however, needs (at least to a certain degree) to be functionally specific for these very processes. A functionally rather un-specific neural substrate that is shared across a broad variety of cognitive processes would not prove cognitive connectedness. The issue of cognitive connectedness therefore needs to be dealt with from two perspectives. On the one hand, the Topic Clusters (ee above) will need to identify and classify the cognitive processes of interest in a theory driven way. On the other hand, we will need to evaluate shared common neural substrate with respect to its functional specificity. More specifically, if we determine that certain processes recruit the same brain regions, we need to evaluate, whether (and to which degree) these very brain regions are also utilized by other cognitive processes. One way for such an evaluation is reverse inference via Bayes’ Theorem (see Hutzler, 2014, Poldrack et al., 2006). When we want to apply Bayes’ Theorem, however, we need to structure and organize the underlying data basis in a way that allows us to determine, from a perspective of cognitive connectedness, the hit-rate and the false alarm rate. In the following, we sketch two showcases that aim to provide the necessary framework to apply Bayes’ Theorem in order to evaluate cognitive connectedness for the Topic Clusters of the present DK proposal – thereby being complementary to the (theory-driven) approach in the Topic Clusters.

Project 1: Systematics of cognitive processes: cognitive ontology
The focus of this PhD project is to provide a framework that allows to systematically represent the (constituent) cognitive processes that are identified in the topic clusters. To evaluate cognitive connectedness, the (constituent) cognitive processes in the Topic Clusters have to be identified by means of a cognitive analysis of the clusters’ prevalent theories. It is essential that these processes (and their interplay) are systematically represented (individually for every Topic Cluster) by means of a so-called cognitive ontology. The most widely recognized concept for a cognitive ontology is the Cognitive Atlas, introduced by Poldrack (2011). This PhD project aims to use the Cognitive Atlas in order provide a coherent representation of the cognitive processes identified for the Topic Areas. Such a cognitive ontology is essential to estimate the specificity of the activation of the neural substrate in questio

Project 2: Cognitive connectedness: BrainMap
The focus of this PhD project is on relating the cognitive processes identified in the Topic Clusters with BrainMap to estimate the functional specificity commonly shared neural substrate. We aim to identify common brain regions shared by connected cognitive processes by means of univariate activity-based fMRI. To this end, BrainMap (Fox et al., 2005) is the database of choice, because it is one of the most widely used databases on regional fMRI activation. BrainMap was, however, not intended to be used for reverse inference (see Hutzler, 2014). BrainMap does not provide a taxonomy that allows a off-the-shelf classification of classification of imaging contrasts as containing a certain cognitive process or not. More specifically, there is no (exclusive) mapping between BrainMaps behavioral domain code and a specific cognitive process. Experimental tasks (in contrast to cognitive processes), however, can be objectively described by means of the recently introduced Cognitive Paradigm Ontology (CogPO, Turner & Laird, 2012). The CogPO extends BrainMap’s capability to describe experimental settings as detailed as possible. The aim of the PhD project is to code the details of those tasks that were identified as evoking the potentially overlapping cognitive processes by means of the CogPO. Doing so will allow to use BrainMap estimate functional overlap as well as functional specificity of connected cognitive processes.

Univ.-Prof. Dr. Eva Jonas

Project 1: Approach, avoidance, and behavioral inhibition, and their dynamic interaction
This project aims to better characterize the neural circuitry underlying of active avoidance motivation (fear), behavioral inhibition (anxiety), and approach motivation (eagerness). Although there is some indication for frontal left-hemispheric involvement in approach motivation, and right frontal as well as anterior cingulate involvement in behavioral inhibition and avoidance, these three motivational states have seldom been investigated within the same paradigm. In addition, most evidence comes from EEG studies which allow only for coarse localization of neural effects. Also, virtually all previous studies relied on a single paradigm to induce these motivational states, which raises concerns about the generalizability of the findings. To overcome these findings, we will induce these three motivational states using multiple induction methods, a large (n = 50) sample, using fMRI, using multiple induction methods. In addition, people often try to mute anxiety by seeking rewards. This phenomenon is well known in the social psychological threat and defense literature, even if these rewards are unrelated to the source of their anxiety. This also applies to eating and drinking because unhealthy eating in response to stress is a prime example for this process, and is also a perfect example for a phenomenon that is known in both Health Psychology and Social Psychology. Working together with Jens Blechert on this phenomenon is likely to contribute to the overarching DK goal of investigating cognitive connectedness.

Project 2: The threat of outgroup rivalry and its adverse effects on outgroup empathy
Neuroimaging studies on empathy for pain have repeatedly demonstrated that perceived group membership modulates neural activation elicited by the observation of pain in others. The anterior insula (AI) is more active when observing ingroup members (such as fellow fan of the same football team) in pain, compared to when observing outgroup members (e.g., fans of a rival soccer team) in pain. Moreover, the extent of these activations is predictive of subsequent helping behavior. These results are compatible with the general notion that people tend to exhibit more empathic concern for ingroup members than for outgroup members. However, the underlying motivational causes of these effects are unclear. Our hypothesis is that threat plays an important role in this context. Outgroup threat may arise when an outgroup is perceived as competing with the ingroup for the same resource. This should partly explain why outgroup members receive less empathy. Consequently, people’s perception of rivalry should be key predictors for ingroup-outgroup differences in empathy and empathy-related brain activation. This idea is based on the proposition that empathy is often a motivated phenomenon: pleasant (e.g., positive affect, affiliation, and social desirability) and unpleasant (e.g., suffering, material costs, and interference with competition) consequences of empathizing with others drive observers toward or away from empathy. A motivated account of empathy not only explains why people empathize more with ingroup members than with outgroup members; it also specifies some of the underlying causes. First, people tend to affiliate more with ingroup members than with outgroup members to begin with. While this first point seems trivial, the second one is not: empathy for an outgroup member should be especially low when one’s ingroup is in competition with that outgroup, which may result in perception of threat. While undergoing functional magnetic resonance imaging, people will be provided with information that a fan of the same football team (ingroup condition), a member of a rival football team (rival outgroup condition), and a member of a non-rival football team (non-rival outgroup condition) receive electric shocks. Based on a motivated account of empathy, we expect rival, but not non-rival outgroup members in pain to elicit less empathic concern (as indicated by both self-report measures and activation in the anterior insula).

Dr. Martin Kronbichler

Project 1: The social brain in neurological and psychiatric disorders
This research project will try to determine the relationship between deficits and abnormalities in higher social cognition abilities and structure and function of the so-called social brain. Psychiatric disorders have been associated with deficient higher cognitive skills such as theory of mind and linked these problems to poor real-world functioning. Abnormalities of brain activation and structure in regions involved in higher social cognitive abilities have also been found in numerous brain imaging studies. Most of these studies have performed comparisons between single categorical psychiatric disorders and healthy controls and much less is known about whether these abnormalities differ between different disorders and how they might be related to dimensional aspects of psychiatric disorders.

Project 2: Expectation, attention and repetition suppression in the visual and auditory brain.
This PhD project will focus on the effects of expectations and predictions on repetition suppression in the human brain. A number of recent studies suggest that repetition suppression (decreased brain activity for the repeatedly processed stimuli) is modulated by higher-level expectations and predictions. These findings are often explained in terms of predictive coding theories of perception and the brain and have challenged bottom-up accounts repetition suppression. However, other studies challenged these interpretations and found that expectations effects do not interact with repetition suppression; furthermore all of the studies on repetition suppression and expectation effects to date have solely focused on immediate short-term repetitions. As repetition suppression has also been demonstrated for longer-term delays (orders of several minutes to days) with many intervening stimuli, it will be important to examine which effects expectations might have on repetition suppression under these conditions.

DDr. Belinda Pletzer

Project 1: Genetic modulation of sex hormone influences on cognition
This PhD project focuses on the genetic modulations of the impact of sex hormones on cognitive performance and underlying brain activation patterns. Sex differences have been established for a variety of cognitive tasks. However, the relative contributions of activational and organizational effects of sex hormones to those differences are still unclear due to a large number of inconsistent findings. It is possible that these controversies are due to genetic heterogeneity in hormone or neurotransmitter receptors, resulting in differential sensitivity to hormone levels. As an example, the most robust sex differences have been demonstrated in spatial abilities. However, literature regarding the impact of prenatal and adult testosterone levels on spatial abilities is extremely controversial. It is possible that these controversies are due to differences in the androgen receptor gene, located at the X chromosome, resulting in differential sensitivity between participants to androgen levels. This potential confound can be controlled by addressing the effects of testosterone intra-individually (longitudinal studies including natural fluctuations in hormone levels or application of testosterone) or by controlling for different genotypes. Specific aims of the project are:

  • To explore whether a relationship between sex hormone levels and cognitive performance (e.g. spatial abilities) as well as the underlying brain activation patterns can be robustly observed within the same individual or when genetic differences in receptor sensitivity are controlled for.
  • To explore, whether the relationship of sex hormones to cognitive performance/brain activation differs between participants with differential receptor sensitivity.
  • To explore, whether the relationship of sex hormones to cognitive performance/brain activation patterns differs between men and women matched for receptor sensitivity. At this point, it is relevant to also address effects of menstrual cycle and hormonal contraceptive use in women.

Project 2: Hormonal contraceptive effects on brain & behavior
This PhD project focuses on the effects of hormonal contraceptives on brain structure, function and connectivity and their relation to cognitive performance. Birth control pills have been on the market for more than 50 years now and are used by 150 million women worldwide. However, despite extensive research on health risks and emotional side effects, the effects of birth control pills on brain and cognition have widely been ignored. Only a handful of recent studies give exploratory evidence that birth control pills might alter brain structure, activation and connectivity as well as cognitive functions. Recently, we found the first indication that these changes are strongly dependent on the type of synthetic hormones contained in the contraceptives and might affect some brain areas beyond the duration of contraceptive treatment. However, most of these studies suffer from small sample sizes and insufficient study designs. Importantly, most of them employ cross-sectional designs instead of the preferable longitudinal designs commonly used to study adverse side effects and therefore their explanatory power is limited. The general aim of this project is for the first time to study the effects of hormonal contraceptives on brain and behavior systematically. Apart from employing a longitudinal design to evaluate whether hormonal contraceptives alter brain structure and function, this project will – for the first time – focus on the following specific research questions:

  • Are there changes in brain structure, function due to OC use and can these changes be linked to observable changes in behavior?
  • Are these changes more pronounced in the developing brain, i.e. during puberty?
  • Do hormonal contraceptive-dependent changes in brain and behavior differ between different types of hormonal contraceptives?
  • In the long-term – after relevant changes have been identified – this project will also seek to address – for the first time – whether hormonal contraceptive dependent changes in brain and behavior are fully reversible after discontinuation of hormonal contraceptive treatment.

Univ.-Prof. Dr. Nathan Weisz

Project 1: Awareness across audition and vision
In this project a PhD student will address the question to what extent conscious perception (~”awareness”) shares a common macroscopic neural substrate that can be generalized across sensory modalities. Near threshold paradigms are frequently employed to putatively uncover the Neural Correlates of Consciousness. Most theoretical frameworks would agree that differences in early sensory processing are insufficient in determining whether a stimulus will be perceived or not and that full awareness requires the involvement of a distributed network involving mainly frontal and parietal regions. It is more or less implicitly assumed that this distributed network of awareness-determining regions is modality independent. However, this has never been demonstrated convincingly. In this project the PhD student will focus on the generalizability of relevant neural features between visual and auditory awareness.

Project 2: Regularity processing across cognitive hierarchies and sensory modalities
In this project, a PhD student will study whether “regularity processing” engages similar macroscopic neural features across sensory modalities and processing hierarchies. Given the outstanding basic role of being able to process regularities adequately for cognitive performance (e.g. learning speech etc., identifying irrelevant distractors etc.), this project will also take on a developmental perspective. For successfully behaving in complex environments or learning new skills it is necessary that individuals are capable of detecting statistical regularities in the sensory input. However, it is at the moment unknown whether the ability to do so, requires a shared neural representation, or whether it engages totally different neural substrates depending on the input modality. In this project the PhD student will focus on the generalizability of relevant neural features of regularity processing in the visual and auditory modality as well as for lower- and higher-level stimulus materials.

Univ.-Prof. Dr. Frank Wilhelm

Project 1: Conditioned auditory intrusions
This PhD project focusses on the construct “memory” in the auditory processing domain in healthy adults during conscious wakefulness. In an attempt to model a cardinal symptom of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), we recently demonstrated in an fMRI experiment that intrusive (i.e., involuntary aversive) episodic memories can be elicited by a classical conditioning procedure involving highly aversive films as unconditioned stimuli (UCS). Widespread activity in response to the UCS in neural regions of the threat processing network, including amygdala, insula, dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), rostral ACC, and hippocampus were predictive of subsequent experimentally triggered and real-life intrusions. In addition, slowed extinction in response to the conditioned stimulus (CS+ vs. CS-) in bilateral anterior insula activity was predictive of subsequent intrusions. The primary modality of intrusions was visual. Here, we want to extend our novel experimental paradigm and these findings to the auditory modality since auditory intrusive symptoms are common in mental disorders like obsessive-compulsive disorder and schizophrenia and may also play a role in tinnitus disorder. In addition, auditory intrusions are common in the subclinical domain in the form of “ear worms” (stuck song syndrome).

Project 2: Developing objective markers of dissociative states of altered wakefulness
This project focusses on the construct of “dissociation” and “memory” in the audiovisual processing domain. Dissociation, i.e., the experience of detachment or feeling as if one is outside one’s body, potentially including partial amnesia, has been acknowledged as an important psychopathological process in PTSD and a dissociative subtype has recently been added to the DSM-5 diagnostic criteria. Initial data of our conditioned intrusion paradigm indicate that intensely aversive films may induce a mild transient dissociative state of altered consciousness in some participants (based on observation and self-report). The validity of self-report of a dissociative state has been criticized because of deficient memory representation of this state. However, no objective measure for operationalizing dissociative states exists so far.

Former Faculty Members (1st/2nd Funding Period)

Univ.-Prof. Dr. Hubert Haider

Univ.-Prof. Dr. Hubert Kerschbaum

em. Univ.-Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Klimesch

Univ.-Prof. Dr. med. univ. Gunther Ladurner

Univ.-Prof. Dr. med. univ. Eugen Trinka, MSc. FRSP

em. Univ.-Prof. Dr. Heinz Wimmer