Body memory is the sum of all past bodily experiences that are stored in memory and influence behavior. Body memories influence our daily life, for example when we remember injuries, accidents, or moments of bodily comfort, and they affect mental health, for example when they cause psychosomatic symptoms, depression, or anxiety. Scientific knowledge on the neuroanatomical pathways and neuronal mechanisms that underlie human body memory is scarce, partly because offline representations of bodily experiences are challenging to study experimentally. Recently, I used 7 Tesla functional magnetic resonance imaging (7T-fMRI) to detect and describe offline representations of tactile sensations at the skin in human somatosensory cortex. These representations are fine-grained, precise, and replicable, and provide empirical evidence that offline representations of bodily feelings can be described by means of 7T-fMRI. In this research project, I will combine my own knowledge and experience in ultra-high field imaging, topographic mapping, psychophysics, and embodiment with recent advances in episodic memory research to target three research questions: (i) Which neuronal mechanisms underlie the storage and retrieval of somatosensory experiences?, (ii) How do stored sensory experiences contribute to psychosomatic symptoms?, and (iii) How can we treat psychosomatic symptoms triggered by maladaptive body memories? Offline representations of tactile experiences and associated emotions will be used as a model system to systematically investigate the storage, retrieval, and intervention-induced plasticity of somatosensory body memories and associated emotions in healthy adults and in clinical populations. The research agenda I propose here will use state-of-the-art scientific tools and methods to gain basic and applied insights into a novel and far reaching research field with the final goal to develop interventions to change stored body memories.
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