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Action selection under threat: the complex control of human defense

Objective

Run away, sidestep, duck-and-cover, watch: when under threat, humans immediately choreograph a large repertoire of defensive actions. Understanding action-selection under threat is important for anybody wanting to explain why anxiety disorders imply some of these behaviours in harmless situations. Current concepts of human defensive behaviour are largely derived from rodent research and focus on a small number of broad, cross-species, action tendencies. This is likely to underestimate the complexity of the underlying action-selection mechanisms. This research programme will take decisive steps to understand these psychological mechanisms and elucidate their neural implementation.

To elicit threat-related action in the laboratory, I will use virtual reality computer games with full body motion, and track actions with motion-capture technology. Based on a cognitive-computational framework, I will systematically characterise the space of actions under threat, investigate the psychological mechanisms by which actions are selected in different scenarios, and describe them with computational algorithms that allow quantitative predictions. To independently verify their neural implementation, I will use wearable magnetoencephalography (MEG) in freely moving subjects.

This proposal fills a lacuna between defence system concepts based on rodent research, emotion psychology, and clinical accounts of anxiety disorders. By combining a stringent experimental approach with the formalism of cognitive-computational psychology, it furnishes a unique opportunity to understand the mechanisms of action-selection under threat, and how these are distinct from more general-purpose action-selection systems. Beyond its immediate scope, the proposal has a potential to lead to a better understanding of anxiety disorders, and to pave the way towards improved diagnostics and therapies.

Field of science

  • /medical and health sciences/clinical medicine/psychiatry/anxiety disorders
  • /social sciences/psychology/psychotherapy
  • /social sciences/psychology

Call for proposal

ERC-2018-COG
See other projects for this call

Funding Scheme

ERC-COG - Consolidator Grant

Host institution

UNIVERSITY COLLEGE LONDON
Address
Gower Street
WC1E 6BT London
United Kingdom
Activity type
Higher or Secondary Education Establishments
EU contribution
€ 1 998 750

Beneficiaries (2)

UNIVERSITY COLLEGE LONDON
United Kingdom
EU contribution
€ 1 998 750
Address
Gower Street
WC1E 6BT London
Activity type
Higher or Secondary Education Establishments
UNIVERSITAT ZURICH

Participation ended

Switzerland
EU contribution
€ 0
Address
Ramistrasse 71
8006 Zurich
Activity type
Higher or Secondary Education Establishments