Junior Research Group Translational Neuromodulation

Head:

Dr. Diane Ruge

Based on physiological knowledge about brain architecture and function regarding resting and task-associated brain states, targeted intervention approaches for prophylactic intervention, early detection of dysfunction, and therapeutic treatment can be developed and explored with regards to applicability in healthy humans and patients. On the other hand, diseases and symptoms do serve as models for the understanding of human brain function and dysfunction. This bidirectional transfer (‘bench to bed’, ‘bed to bench’), centred on the foundation of human brain physiology, is the focus of the research activity of the research group. The group is an interdisciplinary team that welcomes the cross link between medicine (in particular neurology and psychiatry), psychotherapy, mathematics and engineering. We particularly aim to integrate knowledge from different disciplines so as to generate and translate basic research findings into innovative neuromodulation for personalized intervention.
Our methods include state-of-the-art neuromodulation and neurophysiology approaches, including behavioural intervention. Currently the group collaborates with institutions across Europe and the Americas.

Research Background: Work is a major domain in lives of humans and can give reward and satisfaction, but can also be a serious source of stress culminating in disabling disease, including mental health problems and neurological disorders. Moreover, rapid economic evolution evokes the necessity for life long efficient learning. A healthy individual will have to be able to acquire, store, maintain and retrieve memories (or learned content) at the right time, as well as update and replace them when they are no longer valid. The balance between such flexibility versus stability is vital. On the other hand, learning can become a burden, when pace may exceed the capacity and produce an environment of stressors (lack of expected reward, punishment, unpredictability) with potential consequences of malfunctioning or impaired mental health (depression, anxiety, insomnia etc), perturbing learning/ memory formation further. A question to be asked is, if there are stressors that can induce the malfunctioning, are there also conditions that are particularly beneficial for or promoting health?

Once existent, humans constantly and inevitably learn and form memories. This occurs in all domains, such as motor, sensory or limbic (emotional). The underlying process is neuroplasticity. To maintain health, some new information requires previously acquired memory to be abandoned. Nevertheless, it is known that the old memory (i.e. a change of neural tissue or activation that represents memory) trace is usually not forgotten. In fact, once a memory has been established, it is difficult to be eliminated. A fine balance of stability and flexibility determines what can still be considered healthy and what might run the system into pathology. A striking example for the latter is a motor disorder called dystonia where strong motor memories have been formed. Formed memories tend to re-occur. Such ‘invasive’ memories can be components of cognitive skills but also of psychiatric (anxiety disorders), neurological (dystonia) and neuropsychiatric conditions. Other processes, such as an efficient consolidation of a newly formed memory are equally important for a healthy balance of new and old memory processes.

What is the brain systems-level mechanism of how memory representations dynamically change through interactions with the external environment and what determines if a memory is stabilized or forgotten? If we tease apart health and pathology, we would be equipped to target and either selectively strengthen or weaken (erasure of maladaptive patterns in pathology) memories.