IT specialist Lydia Hellrung looks deep into the brains of her research subjects. When they’re lying in the MRI machine, feeling good thanks to autosuggestion, the monitor shows her the active areas of the midbrain that give rise to this pleasant state. According to current hypotheses, people’s state of mind is influenced to a significant extent by the neurotransmitter dopamine. When Hellrung subsequently gives the subject encouraging or discouraging feedback to praise or frustrate them, this leads to changes in activity in the areas of the brain affected. Thanks to functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), she can then, in real time, monitor and study these changes and the responses to them in the brain’s reward and learning center.
Hellrung is investigating these neurobiological processes to be able to describe them with algorithms. “There are only a few places in Europe which already have expertise in this sophisticated real-time technology,” explains postdoc Hellrung, who’s from Germany and is part of the research group of Philippe Tobler, a neuroeconomist with an excellent reputation as an expert in the brain’s reward system. Another reason for choosing UZH was that the MRI labs run by the University’s Department of Economics are used exclusively for research purposes. A trained team of research subjects and support staff is available for experiments. “This is why the University of Zurich was the only option when I was applying for a Marie Curie Fellowship from the EU,” explains Hellrung, who got her PhD at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig.
At the same time, the project requires interdisciplinary collaboration. Besides neuroinformatics and mathematics, anyone investigating neuronal processes and decision making touches on a variety of disciplines ranging from psychiatry to neuroeconomics. “Here in Zurich all these specialist disciplines are together in one place, which enables me to address the subject in the necessary breadth,” explains Hellrung. Ultimately her aim is to understand and find out more about the processes behind the emergence of psychiatric conditions and provide better help to those affected.