Biopsychology as part of the cognitive neurosciences explores the foundations of human experience and behaviour. Therein our international team of psychologists, biologists, biochemists and neuroscientists applies a broad spectrum of scientific methods in humans and the pigeon a complex animal model. This includes behavioural, anatomical, neurochemical, neuroendocrinological and electrophysiological techniques.

Our research interests lie mainly in the exploration of the neuronal basis of cerebral asymmetries and the functions of the prefrontal cortex.

The prefrontal cortex is a complex brain structure that is involved in organising the multitude of our perceptions, thoughts and actions. Moreover, it plays an important role for planning and executing actions and is crucial for the perception of time. In our research projects we investigate the neuronal processes underlying these fundamental functions of the prefrontal cortex.
Cerebral asymmetries form a fundamental but poorly understood principle of brain architecture. The right and left hemispheres are differently organised and hence exert different functions for the mediation of behaviour, higher mental processes, and cognition. We explore how cerebral asymmetries emerge, which role they play for cognitive brain functions and what gender specific differences occur.


Bernstein Focus: Neuronal Mechanisms of Learning

Varying Tunes: Neuronal Mechanisms of Motor Sequence Learning

Controlled induction of variability in the output of the motor system could help to optimize the learning process of motor sequences. An example for a complex motor sequence is the singing of song birds like the zebra finch. The activity of different muscle groups have to be precisely organized to be able to produce the right tunes. This is something young birds have to learn. A special basal ganglia-forebrain circuit is crucial for this learning process. This circuit actively induces variability in the motor system and thus is believed to contribute to the learning process by active exploration of the motor space. In combination with subsequent dopaminergic reinforcement of variations yielding a positive outcome this could optimize the learning process.

Coordinated by Prof. Onur Güntürkün an interdisciplinary research consortium funded by the Bernstein Netzwerk investigates whether the hypothesis that actively induced variability is a requirement of reinforcement-based motor learning holds true not only for the song system but comprises a general mechanism in the vertebrate brain. Results from this research program could fundamentally change our understanding of learning processes in the brain.

Participant researchers:

PD Dr. Hubert Dinse, Institute for Neuroinformatics, Ruhr-University Bochum
Prof. Dr. Onur Güntürkün,   Faculty of Psychology, Ruhr-University Bochum
Prof. Dr. Henrik Mouritsen, Department of Biology and Environmental Sciences, University Oldenburg
Prof. Dr. Klaus Pawelzik, Institute of Theoretical Physics, University Bremen
Prof. Dr. Constance Scharff, Institute of Biology, Free University of Berlin
Prof. Dr. Martin Tegenthoff, University Clinic Bergmannsheil, Ruhr-University Bochum


Motor Sequence Learning in Pigeons

Fig. 1: Schema of the experimental paradigm. Pigeons peck a small dot moving along different tracks on a touch screen. In different sections of the tracks the pigeons have to adapt to parameter changes.

Within the scope of the BFNL project it is our aim to transfer recent findings from the song system to a non-song bird, the pigeon. The song system comprises two major pathways. First, a motor pathway that is required for the production of learned song. Secondly, the so called anterior forebrain pathway (AFP) that is required for song learning. Via its output nucleus, the lateral magnocellular nucleus of the anterior nidopallium (LMAN), the AFP induces variability in the output of the motor pathway. We hypothesise that equivalent pathways exist in non-songbirds that control general body movements. In order to test this hypothesis and to explore what role the putative AFP plays for the learning of motor sequences in pigeons, these birds are trained in a visuomotor tracking task. Guided by a visual cue pigeons learn to peck sequences on a touch screen (Fig. 1). Once a sequence is acquired, parameters can be changed that the pigeons have to adapt to. In a set of different experiments combining behavioural, anatomical and electrophysiological techniques we test critical predictions of the theoretical basis underlying our hypothesis.