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Intern
    Research Training Group 2660: Approach-Avoidance

    Project Area C

    Approach and avoidance in social contexts

    Appropriate social approach and avoidance behaviour is an essential prerequisite for the adaptive regulation of emotions in the social context and the execution of goal-directed behaviour fulfilling current needs and motivations. In several psychiatric conditions, however, these essential behaviours turn out to be maladaptive and thereby contribute to aetiology and maintenance of mental disorders. This becomes specifically evident in conditions that can provoke approaching as well as avoidant behavioural tendencies and thus generate an approach-avoidance conflict. For some individuals (e.g., patients with social anxiety disorders), social cues might act as threat cues in such situations, resulting in avoidance behaviour. On the other hand, social cues might also have the opposite effect as they are capable of dampening adverse effects of stressful situations (i.e., social buffering). Although it is widely acknowledged that adaptive social approach and avoidance behaviour is of substantial importance for social functioning in general, it is still unclear how these opposing behavioural tendencies are implemented and regulated in the brain. Previous evidence suggests that the amygdala plays a key role in selecting and prioritizing threat-related information, that striatal regions play a role in the processing of reward and resulting approach behaviours and that brainstem regions such as the PAG contribute to the flexible shift between approach and avoidance.

    The current project area is guided by the following central hypotheses:

    • Conspecifics are capable of triggering innate approach tendencies that can be shaped by experience to elicit AA conflicts. Such computation involves the amygdala, the striatum and midbrain regions such as the PAG to flexibly shift between approach and avoidance behaviour.
    • Adaptive regulation and socioemotional effects of AA behaviour are conserved across species, and maladaptive behavioural tendencies represent a core facet of mental disorders related to dysfunctions in social contexts.
    • The presence of conspecifics can modulate adverse but also rewarding experiences and contribute to restoring adaptive social behaviour.

    Nine PhD projects are currently available in this project area:

    C1: Attentional and neural dynamics of social approach and avoidance behaviour

    PI: Prof. Dr. Matthias Gamer (matthias.gamer@uni-wuerzburg.de)

    Effects of social fear conditioning on approach and avoidance behaviour.

    Learning about the consequences of social interactions is an important mechanism to shape an organisms' behaviour with regards to approach and avoidance tendencies for interaction partners that have been associated with reward or threat, respectively. Using virtual reality (VR) technology, the current project will examine such processes using a novel social conditioning procedure that resembles important characteristics of comparable protocols in the animal literature. A first study will test the hypothesis that participants learn to show differential approach and avoidance behaviour towards virtual agents on a behavioural level (e.g., interpersonal distance), as well as with respect to active exploration (e.g., gaze towards each agent) and autonomic responding (e.g., electrodermal and cardiovascular responses). For a second study, we will recruit pre-screened groups of participants to elucidate whether social anxiety primarily amplifies nonselective avoidance behaviour or rather modulates approach and avoidance tendencies differently.

    Applicants should have a background in Psychology, Affective/Cognitive/Computational (Neuro-)Science, or a related field and a strong interest in experimental and clinical psychology and neuroscience. Excellent statistical skills are required. Programming skills (e.g. Matlab, R, Python) as well as prior experience with virtual reality are an advantage, but not a pre-requisite, however, willingness to learn these is expected.

    Neural circuits mediating classical vs. instrumental social fear conditioning.

    In this project, we will develop an experimental protocol that allows for a direct comparison between instrumental and classical social fear conditioning. This is essential to permit a comparison between social approach and avoidance behaviour in rodents (that was typically examined using instrumental learning procedures) and humans (that was usually examined in classical conditioning studies). A first study will link eye movements to simultaneously acquired fMRI data to differentiate between instrumental and classical fear learning. A second study will make use of a specifically tailored protocol that allows for a computational modelling of trial-by-trial changes in threat ratings in an fMRI study at ultra-high field strengths (7T MRI) that permits a fine-grained analysis of activity changes and connectivity profiles of subcortical regions such as amygdala and PAG.

    Applicants should have a background in Psychology, Affective/Cognitive/Computational (Neuro-)Science, or a related field and a strong interest in experimental psychology and neuroscience. Excellent statistical skills are required. Programming skills (e.g., Matlab, R, Python) as well as prior experience with eye-tracking or MRI are an advantage, but not a pre-requisite, however, willingness to learn these is expected.

    Influence of social anxiety on approach and avoidance behaviour in field conditions.

    This project will make use of wearable technology (i.e., mobile eye-tracking and ambulatory assessment of autonomic responses) to examine physiological arousal as well as approach and avoidance behaviour towards other individuals in pre-screened participants with variability in social anxiety traits. A first study will rely on free exploration behaviour outside of the laboratory and we will analyse movement trajectories, visual scanning patterns and physiological responses as a function of social anxiety. A second study includes the simulated interaction with a confederate to explore interactions between trait markers of social anxiety and approach and avoidance tendencies in real social situations. Time-series analyses will allow us to elucidate to what degree behavioural effects precede or follow changes in autonomic activity.

    Applicants should have a background in Psychology, Affective/Cognitive/Computational (Neuro-)Science, or a related field and a strong interest in experimental and clinical psychology. Excellent statistical skills are required. Programming skills (e.g. Matlab, R, Python) as well as prior experience with mobile recordings of eye-tracking or physiological data are an advantage, but not a pre-requisite, however, willingness to learn these is expected.

    C2: Avoidance and approach in the presence of others

    PI: Prof. Dr. Grit Hein (Hein_G@ukw.de)

    The effects of social presence on the formation of approach and avoidance behaviour and its modulation by anxiety.

    This project uses a learning paradigm and 3T fMRI to compare behavioural and neural correlates of approach and avoidance learning in the presence of a real person vs. the presence of an avatar. Participants perform a learning paradigm in which they choose between two abstract fractal images with varying probabilities of reward and punishment in the presence of another person (confederate; social group) or in the presence of an avatar (created based on a body scan of the confederate in the social group). Participants are pre-screened for social anxiety traits to investigate their impact.

    Applicants should have a background in Psychology, Social/Cognitive/Computational (Neuro-)Science or a related field and excellent statistical skills. Experience with programming (Matlab, R, Python), virtual reality, conducting behavioural and/or fMRI research would be beneficial; a strong motivation to learn these skills is required.

    Specifying characteristics of the present person.

    This project investigates how avoidance and approach learning are shaped by important social features of the present person such as group membership, expressed empathy (i.e., reaction to pain stimulation of the participant), and expressed empathic joy (i.e., reaction to reward of the participant). The project uses 3T fMRI and a learning paradigm in which participants choose between two abstract fractal images with varying probabilities of reward and punishment. Behavioural and neural correlates of approach and avoidance learning are assessed in the presence (social group) and absence (alone group) of another person. In the social group, the group membership, and levels of displayed empathy for pain or empathic joy of the confederates are manipulated.

    Applicants should have a background in Psychology, Social/Cognitive/Computational (Neuro-)Science or a related field, interest in social processes and excellent statistical skills. Experience with programming (Matlab, R, Python), conducting behavioural and/or fMRI research would be beneficial; a strong motivation to learn these skills is required.

    Investigating the conflict between approach and avoidance.

    This project investigates avoidance and approach learning in the presence of a negatively or positively valued person. The valuation of the present person is manipulated based on standardized social interactions and participants perform a learning paradigm in which they choose between two abstract fractal images with varying probabilities of reward and punishment. In addition to behavioural measures, neural measures are collected using ultra high-field fMRI at 7T, which can capture neural changes in small brain regions.

    Applicants should have a background in Social/Cognitive/Computational (Neuro-)Science, Psychology, or a related field, interest in social processes and excellent statistical skills. Experience with programming (Matlab, R, Python), conducting behavioural and/or fMRI research would be beneficial; a strong motivation to learn these skills is required.

    C3: Role of the serotonergic system in approach and avoidance behaviour in social situations

    PI: PD Dr. Angelika Schmitt-Böhrer (Schmitt_A3@ukw.de)
    Co-PI: Prof. Dr. Esther Asan (esther.asan@uni-wuerzburg.de)

    Effects of 5-HT transporter (5-HTT) deficiency on approach and avoidance behaviour under social buffering.

    The PhD-student will establish a modified version of a social fear conditioning (SFC) paradigm. Social buffering effects will then be tested at different phases of SFC. To study the role of the serotonergic system in this approach and avoidance behavior in social contexts, the serotonin transporter (5HTT) knockout (KO) mice will be used. 5-HTT KO mice were shown to exhibit increased anxiety-like and socio-positive behavior and lifelong increased extracellular 5-HT levels Using these 5-HTT deficient mice, the student will test the consequence of dysfunctional serotonin reuptake on approach and avoidance behaviour and social buffering effects, and study the underlying neurobiological mechanisms. The student will assess SFC- and social buffering-induced neuroplastic changes in the brain, particularly in key regions for social and approach and avoidance behavior such as the amygdala and interacting telencephalic and midbrain areas, using quantitative approaches at gene expression and protein level. Laser capture microdissection enables analyses from the (sub) regional level to the single cell level.

    Applicants should have a background in (Neuro)biology, Biomedical Sciences, or Biophysics, a strong interest in behaviour and neurobiology, and basic knowledge in molecular biological methods. Experience in animal work is of advantage, strong interest and willingness to work with animals is essential. Experience in data analysis or programming is preferred.

    Effects of brain 5-HT deficiency on approach and avoidance behaviour under social buffering.

    The PhD-student will establish a modified version of a social fear conditioning (SFC) paradigm. Social buffering effects will then be tested at different phases of SFC. In this project Tryptophan hydroylase 2 (TPH2) deficient mice will be used. In contrast to the 5-HTT KO model (with increased extracellular 5-HT concentrations), adult TPH2 KO lack central 5-HT. At the behavioural level, 5-HT deficiency was shown to result in reduced anxiety-like behaviour, increased impulsivity and fear- and (context-dependent) panic-like responses, without clear evidence for altered social behaviour. The student will assess SFC- and social buffering-induced neuroplastic changes in the brain, particularly in key regions for social and approach-avoidance behavior such as the amygdala and interacting telencephalic and midbrain areas, using quantitative approaches at gene expression and protein level. Laser capture microdissection enables analyses from the (sub-)regional level to the single cell level.

    Applicants should have a background in (Neuro)biology, Biomedical Sciences, or Biophysics, a strong interest in behaviour and neurobiology, and basic knowledge in molecular biological methods. Experience in animal work is of advantage, strong interest and willingness to work with animals is essential. Experience in data analysis or programming is preferred.

    CeA-DR circuitry, serotonergic imbalance and social behaviour.

    This project will be dedicated to further elucidate neuronal mechanisms possibly underlying behavioral phenomena, focusing on the functional anatomy of interactions between the serotonergic (5-HT-)system (dorsal raphe, DR) and its targets in the amygdala, particularly in the central amygdaloid nucleus (CeA), one of the key regions influencing approach-avoidance and social behavior. In particular, the PhD-student will carry out morphological studies to detect and in detail analyse interrelations between serotonergic afferents and peptidergic (e.g., corticotropin releasing factor-, somatostatin-, NPY-, oxytocin-) systems in the amygdala/CEA using multiple immunolabeling for light-, fluorescence- and electron microscopy of identified neuronal elements, and will use qualitative and quantitative multiple in situ hybridization histochemistry to assess receptor (co)-expression in identified target neurons in wildtype mice. Analyses of possible alterations of identified circuit elements and targeted manipulation of their activity using opto- and/or chemogenetics will serve to assess behavioral relevance of these circuits.

    Applicants should have a background in (Neuro)biology, Biomedical Sciences, or Biophysics, and experience in animal work and tissue preparation for histological analysis. Basic knowledge in molecular biological methods is preferred. Experience with In situ hybridization, immunohistochemistry, optogenetics, and microscopic analysis methods (including electron microscopy and data analysis) is of advantage.