Psychiatric illnesses impact one in four Europeans, resulting in extensive suffering and billions in economic loss. Thus far, psychiatric research has investigated the causes of mental illness by focusing on mechanisms solely ‘within the head’. However, many such illnesses are characterised and compounded by disruptions in bodily experiences and function. Indeed, I have found that signals from the heart and other organs influences how we perceive the world and make decisions. These so-called ‘gut-feelings’ are critical for healthy cognition; yet current models largely ignore their impact on the brain. Until we understand the mechanisms governing these brain-body interactions, our ability to both identify mental illness risk factors and develop effective treatments will be incomplete. To overcome this limitation and identify future targets for psychiatric research, this project will combine innovative methods for manipulating gut feelings with advanced mathematical models and neuroimaging. I will further study how pharmacological beta-blockers, which alter bodily signals, impact brain function and decision-making. This will not only reveal new insights into how the brain processes gut-feelings, but also the possibility to develop psychiatric treatments targeting disordered brain-body interaction. In a second line of research, I will investigate patients following surgical removal of the vagus nerve and stomach. As the vagus is the primary pathway carrying signals from body organs to the brain, this will reveal how diminished bodily input influences brain function and mental health. Finally, to develop a new tool for identifying mental illness risk factors in the healthy population, I will use sophisticated statistical algorithms to relate individual patterns of brain-body interaction to subclinical psychiatric symptoms. Collectively, this fellowship will deliver a paradigm change in our understanding of how a disordered body can give rise to a disorder mind.
The Visceral Brain: A Computational Approach to the Embodied Mind
Area of research:
Psychology, cognitive neuroscience, and philosophy
1 Feb 2019 – 31 Jan 2022
AIAS-COFUND II Marie Skłodowska-Curie fellow
This fellowship has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement No 754513 and The Aarhus University Research Foundation.