Neurobiological bases of normal and pathological stress and fear reactions

The overall cost of mental illness, of which anxiety and depressive disorders are the most prevalent, can exceed €600 billion per year (OECD 2018). The dramatic increase in the number of cases in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic has made the development of effective treatments even more urgent than before. Research over the past decades has shown many partial successes in the treatment of both stress-related illnesses and anxiety and depression, but effective therapeutic solutions have not yet been developed.
Psychological stressors trigger complex hormonal, autonomic and behavioural responses coordinated by the central nervous system.  If the strategy for a given provocation is successful, the stress response subsides, and the response is recorded in the form of memory traces that help the body to habituate to the challenge. If coping is unsuccessful or not possible, new stressors trigger stress-related memory images, the stress response and fear are intensified.  
The WHO predicts that by 2030, depression will be the world's biggest health and economic burden disease. It is essential for treatment that people who are properly diagnosed are treated as soon as possible with the most effective therapy for them. To develop such therapies, it is essential to have a clear understanding of the neurological mechanisms that cause these changes.
Targeted, strategic research at the institute contributes to the development of effective therapeutic approaches using translational, preclinical models, state-of-the-art neuroanatomical, genetic, neurobehavioural and behavioural methods, and studies targeting many aspects of the stress response and pathological fear responses.

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The neurobiology of stress

The neuroendocrine stress response is regulated by the hypothalamo-pituitary-adrenal system. The corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH)-secreting neurons are located in the paraventricular nucleus of the hypothalamus which  integrate stress information from other areas of the central nervous system and are able to trigger the appropriate hormonal stress response. However, during stress, autonomic functions, metabolism, immune processes and behaviour are also altered. The aim of our research is to elucidate the regulatory mechanisms and neuronal networks that coordinate elements of the stress response and to reveal the role of neurons expressing CRH in stress integration outside of the hypothalamus.

A novel midbrain-extended amygdala pathway controls defensive behavior

A novel research direction of our team is to unravel the circuit mechanisms underlying defensive behavior. 

Thalamus and Stress

Research group: Thalamus Research Group

In this project we study the role of thalamus in stress induced behavioral alterations.

Connections of the amygdala

The amygdala is a central element of the brain’s emotional network, but there are a lot of unresolved questions around this brain region.

Regulation of arousal level by midline thalamic and prefrontal cortical connections

The midline thalamus has a key role in the regulation of working memory, cognitive processing and sleep-wake transition, as well as in controlling cortical oscillations.

Neural mechanisms of stress coping and maladaptive changes in affective disorders

Coping with different stressors is essential for survival and success, which is regulated by complex neural networks integrating cognitive and emotional processes. Under pathological conditions, excessive passive coping becomes detrimental, observed in anxiety and depressive disorders. Animal models can help to identify the neural substrates of individual vulnerability to develop such maladaptive conditions. We use rodent models (transgenic mice, early-life stress, cell type-specific manipulations) to explore the molecular, cellular, neuronal network level changes underlying anxious-depressive phenotypes.

Biomarkers of vulnerability to trauma-induced long-term adverse behavioral changes

Most people experience at least one traumatic event during their lifetime. While the majority of individuals recover without long-term consequences, 10-30% of trauma-exposed individuals develop posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a complex, severe and lasting mental condition which fundamentally decreases life quality. Therapeutic interventions in PTSD are insufficiently resolved to this day. Identification of individuals vulnerable to trauma-induced development of PTSD and treatment strategies selectively targeting this subpopulation represents a major clinical challenge with high therapeutic potential. Employing a translational laboratory animal model of trauma-induced lasting adverse behavioral changes, our group aims to identify behavioral markers of vulnerability and their neural correlates.

Novel approach to reveal trait anxiety through summary measures of multiple states

The prevalence of anxiety disorders is significantly the highest among all mental illnesses, estimated at around 34%. Despite its high prevalence and serious individual and societal impacts, the neurobiological mechanisms underlying this group of disorders are not fully understood. Consequently, the currently available pharmacotherapeutic treatments are ineffective in 40% of cases. Furthermore, promising new drug targets identified in preclinical studies prove ineffective in human clinical trials at an alarming rate. Our hypothesis suggests that preclinical anxiety tests can only measure transient anxious states that are highly influenced by environmental impacts, rendering them unsuitable for modelling high trait anxiety, a core symptom of anxiety disorders.