Research Priority Program "Psychobiology of Stress"

The Research Priority Program brings together researchers from Faculty I - Psychology and the Research Institute for Psychobiology. The Priority Program is funded by the Research Initiative of Rheinland-Palatinate’s Ministry of Science, Further Education and Cultural Affairs. Further information can be found on the ► Homepage of the Research Priority Program.

Current Projects

Kids and stress - stress-management for elementary school children 
(contact: Bernadette von Dawans, Laura Bastgen)
All children experience stress in their day-to-day lives. Sometimes children perceive this stress as exhausting, feel pressured, have disrupted sleep or develop other symptoms. In some cases this could lead to impaired school performance. For adults, there are already a number of factors that have proven to be significant for dealing with stress. The aim of this study is to find out if these factors also apply to children. The outcome of this study can improve future assistance for children who deal with high levels of stress on a regular basis. In this project, third and fourth grade school children can learn to better cope with everday and school stress. Further information in German.


The effect of cortisol on the social behavior of men
(contact: Julia Strojny)

Although there are many studies on different situational and qualitatively different aspects of stressors, the underlying biological mechanisms are not yet fully understood. This is especially true for the stress hormone cortisol. This study seeks to clarify these mechanisms by implementing pharmacological strategies to increase cortisol levels. In this way, a wide range of situational influences that usually accompany psychosocial stress tests (e.g. TSST) can be controlled for. To investigate social behaviour, behavioural economic paradigms are implemented to measure trust, trustworthiness, sharing, punishment and risk (von Dawans et al., 2012).


Social cognition in women and the influence of oral contraceptives, cycle phase and sex steroids
(contact: Julia Strojny)

In addition to their physiologically regulative functions, hormones also have an influence on human behavior. However, in research on hormonal modulation of social behavior, women are often excluded as subjects due to cycle-related fluctuations and hormonal contraception. Therefore, the present study examines whether decision-making behavior, empathy and Theory of Mind differs in women taking oral contraceptives or varies between different cycle phases in naturally cycling women and whether it is related to the hormones progesterone and estradiol. Hormone levels will be determined from saliva samples. Methods from the field of behavioral economics will be used to investigate social behavior (von Dawans et al., 2019). To measure empathy and Theory of Mind the EmpaToM is used (Kanske et al., 2015).

Effects of acute psychosocial stress on social cognitive functions
(contact: Gregor Domes)

Psychosocial stress is associated with a variety of stress-related disorders and leads to specific response types at the behavioral level. In addition to the classic "fight-or-flight" response postulated by Cannon, the concept of "tend-and-befriend" behavior according to Taylor has become increasingly important in the context of stress research in recent years. Thus, the effects of acute psychosocial stress on social-cognitive correlates (e.g., social attention and emotion recognition) of the two response tendencies and the mediating role of psychobiological mechanisms will be investigated.


Psychobiological validation of a psychosocial stressor in a virtual reality environment 
(In cooperation with the Social Psychology Research Group, Prof. Walther; contact: Gregor Domes)

In the field of experimental stress research in the laboratory, it is essential to have standardized stress induction methods that can reliably generate stress in subjects on a cognitive, emotional, physiological and behavioral level. To achieve optimal standardization and cost-effectiveness, a well-researched method for experimental stress manipulation ("Trier Social Stress Test", Kirschbaum et al., 1992) is to be transferred to a virtual environment and evaluated for its effectiveness. In addition to subjective parameters, the main focus is on how virtual reality stress induction affects endocrine and psychophysiological markers of the psychobiological stress response.


Social fear and eye contact: Effects of social threat in social phobia and autism 
(In cooperation with Prof. Heinrichs, Albert-Ludwigs-University Freiburg, Germany; contact: Antonia Vehlen)

The eye region of the face is an essential source of social information. The eyes of a conversation partner encode, among other things, their affective and mental state. Adequate eye contact seems to be an indicator of intact social skills, while inadequate eye contact is a common feature of social interaction disorders such as social phobia and autism spectrum disorders. Research to date suggests that, depending on level of perceived social evaluative threat, these two clinical groups display distinct eye contact behavior. With the aid of two eye-trackers synchronized in time, the eye movements of two people in conversation will be quantitatively measured in a naturalistic, everyday setting with different social threats, and psychophysiological indicators of emotional reactions (EDR, HRV, facial expressions) will be collected. For the first time, it will be possible to elucidate the dynamics of dyadic eye contact in order to better understand non-verbal interaction deficits in social anxiety disorders and autism spectrum disorders. This groundbreaking research will enable us to draw conclusions about disturbance-specific pathogenesis and could provide crucial information for differential diagnosis.


Neural correlates of body image disturbance inbinge eating
(In cooperation with Prof. Svaldi, Unibersity of Tübingen, Germany; contact: Gregor Domes)

The undue influence of shape and weight on self-evaluation and the corresponding body dissatisfaction are a core feature of binge eating disorder (BED) and a predictor of poor treatment outcome. Empirical evidence suggests that schema-driven processes seem to maintain overvaluation of shape and weight in BED. However, the underlying functional neuroanatomy of overvaluation of shape and weight and the corresponding body dissatisfaction in BED is yet to be understood. In fact, no study directly tested whether overvaluation of shape and weight in BED is based on dysfunctional body-image-processing brain circuits. The characterization of these neural underpinnings might help to broaden our understanding of the etiology of BED, and in terms of a biomarker might further help to improve the diagnostic differentiation between disorders of the same cluster or between subgroups within the same disorder.


Fronto-limbic structural abnormalities in borderline personality disorder patients
(contact: Carolyn Wu)

Borderline personality disorder (BPD) is a severe mental disorder that is characterized by emotional dysregulation and impulsivity. Recent neuroimaging findings have helped to improve understanding of the neurobiology underlying BPD, with structural and functional abnormalities identified in a fronto-limbic network. However, evidence for structural alterations in emotional processing regions is inconsistent, and may be due to the heterogeneity of BPD. BPD is commonly accompanied by other disorders and it is yet to be clarified whether particular findings are specific to BPD or are related to comorbid disorders. Due to the high prevalence of co-occuring disorders, excluding those with comorbidity would result samples that are non-representative of the population. One alternative approach that has potential to offer more insight into what is specific to BPD, is to include other clinical groups as controls. Therefore, in a multicenter study, structural brain images from BPD patients, patients with cluster-C personality disorder as a clinical control group, and non-clinical controls will be examined in order to gain insight into the specifics of volumetric abnormalities and cortical thinning patterns. A more detailed understanding of the specifics of BPD will be valuable for improving treatment of this complex disorder.


Effects of sugar and artificial sweeteners on stress reactivity
(contact: Gregor Domes)

Animal model studies have shown that a prolonged period of fasting causes an attenuated cortisol release when external stressors are confronted. Studies in humans found that the administration of a rather large amount of glucose after a period of fasting reestablishes the typical cortisol reaction to a psychosocial stressor. A follow-up study revealed the specificity of this effect for glucose due to the fact that it does not appear after the administration of an equivalent possible energy source like fat or protein.

This research project is being conducted with the objective of replicating these previous findings with a bigger sample size. Furthermore, we would like to test their generalizability by implementing not only a psychosocial stressor, but also one based on a more physiological reaction as well. Moreover, we hope to add to the previous research by extending our focus on commonly available artificial sweeteners and their potential to influence the physiological stress response.


The influence of music listening on acute stress responses
(Ansprechpartnerin: Carolyn Vatheuer)

Today, stress is one of the most important factors contributing to detrimental health. Listening to music is a non-invasive, low-cost and accessible means of reducing stress. Although some studies report a positive effect, providing support for the development of “music as medicine”, other results demonstrate weak or even a lack of effects.  Consequently, it is important to research the mechanisms in more detail to understand the potential effectiveness of music as an intervention. In current research in the lab, controlled experimental studies are carried out in order to investigate the effects of music listening on the physiological and psychological stress response.


Music Performance Anxiety – prevalence and emotion processing 
(Ansprechpartnerin: Carolyn Vatheuer)

Music Performance Anxiety (MPA) impairs performance quality and can restrict musicians to such an extent that they abandon their careers. It is necessary to learn more about the prevalence of MPA as well as important variables that could contribute to etiology and effects. This project will collect descriptive data on the occurrence of MPA in a broad range of musicians in Germany and investigate variables related to this construct. Additionally, the relationship between MPA and emotion recognition will be examined in more detail, as preliminary studies suggest deficits in the processing of facial expressions. Understanding more about these aspects could contribute to the development of new therapeutic methods.


Identifying neural predictors of the acute stress response 
(Ansprechpartnerin: Carolyn Vatheuer)

Short-term laboratory stressors such as the Trier Social Stress Test (TSST) are implemented in order to investigate the acute stress response under experimentally controlled conditions. Studies typically report that approx. 20 – 30 % of participants do not show a substantial physiological stress response as measured by cortisol. Intriguingly, a lack of response does not appear to be simply coupled with a lack of subjective stress appraisal. Although exploring the influence of factors such as age, gender, and personality traits has provided some insight into variation of response, stress response variability, to date, cannot yet be successfully explained. This project aims to explore whether neural substrates as measured by EEG, MRI, and fMRI can improve predictor models of the acute stress response in healthy individuals. The current investigation examines whether task-dependent neural markers in neural networks associated with socio-emotional processing and regulation are indicative of the physiological response to stress. This work will be extended in the future to incorporate neural reactivity to tasks known to be associated with the stress networks, such as threat sensitivity and emotional regulation, in order to provide a more comprehensive evaluation of the neural signatures of responses to acute psychosocial stressors.