Neural Basis of Behavior

Irmgard Amrein


PD Dr. Irmgard Amrein
Division of Functional Neuroanatomy, Institute of Anatomy, University of Zurich

Research focus: We investigate eco-evolutionary adaptations in the structure of the mammalian hippocampus – How do structural specializations relate to the evolutionary history of animals? How do structural specializations translate into behaviors that allow the animals to successfully compete in their ecological niches? We perform comparative quantitative analysis of functionally defined neuron populations that also includes neurons that are born in adult animals. Most of the animals we study are wild-living species that show unique environmental adaptations. We have been able to define anatomical patterns that characterize taxonomic groups, and within these groups, habitat requirements that can shape quantitative relations between hippocampal cell populations - revealing surprising features that only nature is able to create.

Keywords: hippocampus, behavior, adaptation, phylogeny, stereology, immunohistochemistry, neurogenesis

Topic: Neural Basis of Behavior

Publications: pubmed


Margarete Arras


PD Dr. med. vet. Margarete Arras
Center for Clinical Research, Division of Surgical Research, University Hospital Zurich
Research Focus: Pain in rodents is still a contradictory topic. Currently only few reliable indicators exist to detect low and middle grade pain in the mouse. As the diagnosis of pain is the basis of effective analgesic treatment for animals used in biomedical research, the analgesic regimens currently used for mice often do not meet the needs of this species. We therefore work on the development of reliable and sensitive indicators in different pain models and use our pain indicators to test and adjust analgesic regimens for mice undergoing diverse experimental procedures.

Methods used: Telemetric recordings of physiological parameters, observations of species typical behaviours in the home cage, analyses of activity and circadian rhythm, behavioural tests e.g. burrowing test, analgesiometric and pharmacokinetic investigations.

Keywords: Pain, refinement, analgesia, behavior, mouse

Topic: Neural Basis of Behavior

Publications: pubmed



Ayaz Asli


Dr. Asli Ayaz
Brain Research Institute, University of Zurich

Research Focus: We perceive the outside world as a result of continuous sensorimotor interactions. We guide our gaze to what we want to look at; we choose and approach what to touch smell or taste.  In addition our motor actions are carried out in the light of sensory inputs. Our research focuses on understanding how sensory inputs are integrated with motor actions to produce a unified percept. We specifically investigate sensorimotor circuitry of somatosensation during active exploratory behavior in head-restrained mobile mice. We use 2-photon calcium imaging to measure neuronal activity and benefit from viral and genetic constructs to dissect and manipulate the circuitry.

Keywords: sensory processing, locomotion, in vivo physiology, optical imaging, sensorimotor integration, neural circuits

Topics: Sensory systems, Neural basis of behavior



Dominik Bach


Prof. Dr. phil. Dr. med. Dominik R. Bach
Department of Psychiatry, Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics, Psychiatric Hospital, University of Zurich

Research Focus:  Emotions are adaptive response syndromes that exist in humans, and non-human animals. Our knowledge on the molecular and neuronal basis of defensive emotions such as panic, learned fear, and anxiety, mainly comes from animal research. Yet, animal models of emotion are not directly comparable to human emotion. The challenge that our lab seeks to address is to translate established animal models of emotion to humans, by creating and investigating behavioural cross-species test beds. We are particularly interested in a computational formulation of aversive learning (fear conditioning), anxiety, and other defensive behaviours. To this end, we use structural and functional MRI, MEG, peripheral physiology, behavioural experiments, and computational modelling.

Keywords: Emotions, comparative neuroscience, computational modelling, fear conditioning, anxiety

Topics: Neural Basis of Behavior, Cognitive Neuroscience, Computation and Modeling

Publications: pubmed





Dr. Giovanni Bertolini
Department of Neurology, University of Zurich

Research Focus: The aim of the Swiss Space Travel and AiR Sickness (SSTARS) group is to investigate the mechanism of habituation and learning of self-motion perception in novel motion environments. A novel motion environment is any condition in which our brain fails to correctly interpret the motion stimuli. Such environments (from cars and ships to virtual reality and artificial gravity environments) cause motion sickness, spatial disorientation and other syndromes affecting performance and social interaction (sopite syndrome, mal de débarquement). Within our research activity, we develop non-invasive habituation protocols to counteract these conditions. The applications range from vestibular rehabilitation, acceptance of novel emerging technology (self-driving cars, virtual reality systems), quality of life and safety in transport systems. An important focus is on vestibular physiology for aviation and space flight (in flight, micro- and artificial gravity) in collaboration with the German Aerospace Center – DLR and the Swiss Aeromedical Institute.

Keywords: Motion sickness, vestibular space physiology, artificial gravity, virtual reality sickness, self-motion perception, sensory habituation

Topics: Sensory systems, Disorder of the nervous system, Neural Basis of Behavior


Johannes Bohacek


Dr. Johannes Bohacek, Junior Group Leader 
Brain Research Institute, University of Zurich

Research Focus: We are interested in understanding the organism-wide consequences of stress, and how the complex stress-response leads to changes in behavior and increases the risk for neuropsychiatric disease. We use mice as a model organism to study stress-induced effects in the CNS, but also in the germline. We use optogenetic, transcriptomic, pharmacologic, epigenetic and behavioral approaches combined with assisted reproductive techniques.

Keywords: stress, anxiety, transcriptome, hippocampus, transgenerational non-genetic inheritance, epigenetics

Topics: Neural Basis of Behavior, Disorders of the Nervous System, Molecular and Cellular Neuroscience

Publications: pubmed       



Steven Brown


Prof. Dr. Steven Brown 
Chronobiology and Sleep Research Group, Institute of Pharmacology and Toxicology, University of Zurich

Research Focus: Humans are diurnal animals.  Not only is one-third of our lives spent asleep, but nearly all aspects of physiology vary according to time of day, directed by biological “circadian” clocks in nearly all cells of the brain and body.  Our laboratory is interested in the molecular mechanisms that govern these clocks and their control of sleep, using a mixture of biochemistry, microscopy and electrophysiology in genetically modified mice and human cellular model systems.  For example, we have shown recently how particular families of ion channels control cortical oscillations during sleep, how RNAs are directed to synapses by clock-associated proteins, and that dynamic DNA methylation in the brain can reprogram daily transcriptional cycles.

Keywords: Sleep, circadian clock, transcription, inhibitory synapse, IPSC, RNA transport, metabolism

Topics: Sleep and Sleep Disorders, Molecular and Cellular Neuroscience, Neural Basis of Behavior

Publications & Website:

Moritz Daum


Prof. Dr. phil. Moritz M. Daum
Department of Psychology, Developmental Psychology: Infancy and Childhood, University of Zurich

Research Focus: The overarching aim of the Research Group “Developmental Psychology” is to address the roots of infants’ and young children’s perception and understanding of their social world. The understanding of others as social agents is one of the most fundamental skills in our everyday social life. It is crucial for any engagement in cooperative and communicative activities. In our research, we are particularly interested in the mechanisms that form the bedrock of infants’ action perception, the interrelation of infants’ early action perception comprehension to the control of their own actions, the selective implementation of observed actions in one’s own actions.

Current projects focus on the (neuro-)cognitive processes underlying infants’ and young children’s action understanding, the interrelation of action understanding and action performance across the whole lifespan, the interrelation of language and action in development, and the development of the self.

Keywords: developmental psychology, infancy, life span, cognitive development, action perception language, imitation, eye tracking, EEG

Topics: Development and Regeneration, Neural Basis of Behavior, Cognitive Neuroscience

Publications: pubmed






PD Dr. med. Dr. med. dent. Dominik Ettlin
Center of Dental Medicine, University of Zurich

Research Focus: Our clinical focus is the biopsychosocial evaluation and management of patients suffering from athrogenic, myogenic and neurogenic trigeminal pain disorders. The interdisciplinary team includes dentists, physicians, psychologists and neuroscientists.

We aim at better understanding peripheral and central pathomechanisms underlying these disorders, utilizing primarily functional magnetic resonance imaging and spectroscopy (fMRI and fMRS). We developed several MR-compatible setups for reliable stimulation of extra and intraoral structures.

We are also interested in behavioral aspects of pain. By collecting multicenter clinical data, we analyze potential pain etiologies and modifying factors.

Keywords: trigeminal sensory system, nociception, (orofacial) pain, brainstem and cortical pain fMRI, fMRS, questionnaires, clinical pain trials

Topics: Sensory Systems, Neural Basis of Behavior, Disorders of the Nervous Systems, Biomedical Technology and Imaging, cognitive neuroscience

Publications: PubMed