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Gazzola Group Keysers Group

BIAL foundation grant for Social Brain Lab

Valeria Gazzola, Christian Keysers and Ritu Bhandari, from the Social Brain Lab received a BIAL foundation grant for their project entitled “Predictive coding of observed action in the brain – a 7T study”.

Predictive coding model

If we see a waiter with a bottle of wine and his cork screw, we can predict his actions that will unfold in the next minute: driving in the cork screw, pulling the cork, pouring a little in one glass, waiting for the customer’s approval, etc. This grant will shed light on how the brain does that by testing a predictive coding model we have developed in the lab. In this model, if the actions of the waiter unfold as predicted, our perception of the waiter’s actions are driven by premotor activations representing our own knowledge of how to pour wine, derived from our past experience, engraved in our synaptic connections. Counterintuitively, visual areas are actually inhibited, and contribute little to our perception of the world. Only if something unexpected happens – e.g. the customer spits out the wine – would predictions inhibit the wrong visual neurons, and visual regions would trigger a feed-forward signal that would realign our perception to the reality.

This grant will test two specific predictions made by this model. First, we hypothesize that when witnessing actions unfold as predicted, feedback (predictive) signals from premotor cortices should prevail in parietal cortices over feedforward (prediction error) signals from visual cortices. This will be tested using layer specific BOLD measurements at ultra-high field. Second, we hypothesized that predictions cancel out predicted visual input in visual cortex using inhibitory interneurons. This will be tested using innovative functional GABA and Glutamate spectroscopy.

BIAL

BIAL is the largest Portuguese pharmaceutical company and one of the main pharmaceutical companies in the Iberian Peninsula. In 1994 the BIAL Foundation launched a Grants programme for scientific research with the aim of encouraging the research into human being’s physical and mental processes, namely in fields still largely unexplored but which warrant further scientific analysis, including Psychophysiology. Up to now 537 projects have been supported, involving about 1200 researchers from 25 countries. The approved applications have benefited from grants in amounts ranging from €5,000 to €50,000. Other awards from BIAL include: BIAL Merit Award in Medical Sciences (€200.000) and BIAL Award in Clinical Medicine (€100.000).

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Gazzola Group

When we see a little girl falling from her bike, why do most of us instinctively run to help and comfort her?

Years of research show that one of the reasons why we help other people is because their suffering activates brain regions that are also active when we ourselves are hurt. The pain of the child with her bleeding knee becomes our own pain. Helping the girl now becomes a way to sooth what is now our pain. A similar contagion happens for other emotions as well: we rejoice with our friend when we watch her crossing the finish line of her first marathon.
In some circumstances the decision to help is less readily made, but requires a detailed analysis of the pros and cons of the action we decide to take. For instance, if you are late for an important job interview, and you see the mother also running toward the child, you might decide to keep on going instead. This is because you have quickly calculated the benefits for the other against the costs for yourself, and found that the costs of helping (high probability of not getting the coveted new job) in this case are higher than the benefits to the other (comforting a child you do not know while her mom will soon arrive).

Some of the core questions my lab currently investigates are: What areas of the brain cause us to act prosocially? How does the brain weigh the benefits to self and the cost to others? How do we learn the consequences our actions have on others? When we hit someone he will likely be in pain. How does this make us learn that hitting people is bad? Why do psychopathic individuals fail to acquire these moral sentiments? Does the activation of our own pain brain regions while witnessing the other wince in pain play a critical role in that learning?

In order to answer these questions, we synergize brain imaging tools such as 3T and 7T fMRI and EEG, and neuro-modulation tools, such as TMS and tDCS.

 

 

Social Brain Lab

Befitting our interest in social cognition, my lab and that of Christian Keysers create a joint, strongly collaborative cluster of expertise on the neural basis of social cognition that we call the Social Brain Lab.

STUDENT PROJECTS

If you are interested in applying for an internship in the Social Brain Lab please follow the instructions in this document. This also applies to literature thesis projects.

Funding

The Gazzola lab is generously financed by the Dutch Science Foundation’s Innovational Research Incentives Scheme (VIDI), the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation, the European Commission’s Marie Skłodowska-Curie actions, and the Consejo Nacional de Ciencia y Tecnología of Mexico.

 

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Keysers Group

While we watch a movie, we share the experiences of the actors we observe: our heart for instance starts beating faster while we see an actor slip from the roof of a tall building. Why?

Specific brain areas are involved when we perform certain actions or have certain emotions or sensations. Interestingly, some of these areas are also recruited when we simply observe someone else performing similar actions, having similar sensations or having similar emotions. These areas called ‘shared circuits’ transform what we see into what we would have done or felt in the same situation. With such brain areas, understanding other people is not an effort of explicit thought but becomes an intuitive sharing of their emotions, sensations and actions.

Christian Keysers‘ lab focuses on providing increasingly detailed insights into how exactly the brain achieves this remarkable feat of empathy. For this aim, the lab combines powerful methods to non-invasively image brain activity in humans, with an unprecedented ability to record and influence brain activity at neural levels in rodents. You can get an impression for the labs spirit in these short movies:

 

In addition, the lab explores why some people seem to show very reduced empathy, for instance in patient groups that suffer from impairments in social cognition, including autism and psychopathy. You can get an impression for that work from the following episode with Morgan Freeman:

Cover The Empathic Brain

 

Read more about our research in Christian Keysers’s book The Empathic Brain.

Available at Amazon US, EU, UK in English, or as translations into Dutch (Het empathische brein), German (Unser Empathisches Gehirn), Turkish or Japanese.

 

Or what Christian Keysers present the lab at the Marie Curie Action’s 20th Anniversary in Brussels

 

Social Brain Lab

Befitting our interest in social cognition, my lab and that of Valeria Gazzola create a joint, strongly collaborative cluster of expertise on the neural basis of social cognition that we call the Social Brain Lab.

Student projects

If you are interested in applying for an internship in the Social Brain Lab please follow the instructions in this document. This also applies to literature thesis projects.

Funding

ERC European Commission FP7

NWOMarieCurie

The Keysers lab studies fundamental issues in social neuroscience. To do so, we are entirely dependent on public funding. We are enormously thankful to the Dutch Science Foundation (NWO) and the European Commission for being dedicated patrons of such frontier science. Without the Talent Scheme of NWO that has supported our work through VENI, VIDI and VICI grants, and without the European Commission that has supported us through the ERC and several Marie Skłodowska-Curie actions, we would have been unable to tackle the mysteries of our social nature. In addition, the Dutch Government has helped us deeply through the  National Initiative for Brain and Cognition.

FACILITIES

The social brain lab is equipped to integrate research in humans and rodents. For this purpose it has the following equipment.

HUMAN RESEARCH:

Human Equipment at SBL
Human Equipment at SBL
  • 3T philips scanner at the Spinoza Center (10m away, click here for details)
  • 7T philips scanner at the Spinoza Center (10m away, click here for details)
  • 130Ch ActiChamp EEG system (that can be split in two 64Ch systems for hyperscanning)
  • Magstim Rapid TMS system with neuronavigation
  • 8Ch Soterix tDCS system

RODENT RESEARCH

  • housing facilities for mice and rats
  • 64Ch Neuralynx Electrophysiology system for freely moving rodents with silicon probes or tetrodes
  • Neurolabware two-photon laser scanning microscope with Phenosys VR system
  • DM2 fascilities for viral transfections
  • Ethovision system for behavioral analysis

DATA ANALYSIS

  • 40 Core, 2TB RAM shared ram supercomputer

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