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Multifunctional cerebellum

Imagine seeing an old person picking up a box and a young person picking up a comparable box. By merely looking at both movements, you can already tell the difference in, for example, strength, flexibility, and confidence of the two people. The brain region responsible for such higher perceptual abilities was thought to be the cerebral cortex, the outer layer of the brain. However, a study done by the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience shows the cortex gets help from another region, namely the cerebellum, an area involved in movement. This discovery can help understand the consequences of damage to the cerebellum, since not only motoric impairment will appear, but also social cognition can be altered. The study was published today in the prominent scientific journal Brain.

The cerebellum, is located at the backside of the brain and is mainly involved in fine tuning and co-ordination of movements. For a long time, it was assumed that the cerebellum ‘only’ helps smooth out bodily movements. “Our study provides the evidence that this belief is wrong – the cerebellum is smarter than we think” says Dr. Valeria Gazzola, group leader at the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience (NIN) and associate professor at the University of Amsterdam.

Using neuroimaging the researchers of the NIN identified what parts of the brain are activated when people watch the actions of others. This resulted in the known cortical regions. Surprisingly, results also systematically showed activity in the cerebellum. “This area was supposed to be only involved in controlling the participants’ own actions”, says Ritu Bhandari, a Postdoctoral researcher at the NIN.

Malfunctioning cerebellum

In collaboration with the Erasmus MC, the researchers further investigated the perceptual abilities of the cerebellum. For this, they recruited patients that suffer from SCA6, a disease that affects the the cerebellum. The patients had to watch a video of a hand lifting a black box, and they had to judge how heavy the box might have been. They found that the patients were not so good at doing this. “They found it hard to transform small differences in how the hand moves into a perception of effort and weight,” Abdel Abdelgabar, a PhD student at the NIN, remarked.

A bicycle chain

These findings clearly show the importance of functioning cerebellum in social cognition. However, this doesn’t mean that the area alone perceives other people. “If you remove the chain of your bicycle, it will no longer move forward. But that doesn’t mean it was the chain alone that drove the bike” explains Valeria Gazzola. “What it does show, is that the cerebellum is a critical part of a cognitive system – a part we had neglected for too long. And we must realize, that problems with the cerebellum will most likely impair aspects of social cognition and that this requires support and patience,” she concludes.

 

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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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