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Wulf Haubensak takes over professorship for neuronal cell biology at MedUni Vienna

Brain researcher maps out neuronal architecture for emotions
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Bild: IMP/Lukas Beck

(Vienna, 08 October 2021) On 1 October 2021, Wulf Haubensak took over the professorship for neuronal cell biology (§98) at Medical University of Vienna. The brain researcher comes from the Research Institute for Molecular Pathology (IMP) to MedUni Vienna and will head the department for neuronal cell biology at the Center for Brain Research.

Even in his diploma thesis, Wulf Haubensak dealt with the functions of the brain. "I wanted to understand how neuronal networks learn. My doctoral thesis pertained to how neurons form in the embryo and why certain regions of the brain got bigger and bigger throughout the course of evolution." As a postdoc, he then bridged the gap from brain development to function and studied circuits for fear. During his time at the Research Institute for Molecular Pathology (IMP) at the Vienna BioCenter, he and his team mapped out emotion circuits and are now investigating how genes influence circuit dynamics and affective decisions.

Neuronal architecture for emotions
"Emotions are central elements of experiences and of our mental self. All of what is important to us is linked to emotions. Emotions help to filter what is important for us from the millions of stimuli, to store these impressions and finally to make the right behavioural decision," explains Haubensak, "such affective processes guide us, from survival in the wilderness to complex challenges of modern societies and virtual worlds.

Haubensak and his team investigate the question of how the brain processes emotional stimuli, how it stores emotional memories and controls emotional behaviour. "The research of our group is like a journey into the brain, mapping the neuronal architecture of emotional behaviour," explains Haubensak, "using live fluorescence microscopy and optogenetics, we observe and change activity patterns in neuronal networks in the mouse model. This data allows us to extrapolate how certain neural circuit motifs solve emotional tasks.
Here, we are initially interested in two circuits between emotions in the amygdala and sensations (how do I feel) in the cortex. How can their interaction assign emotional salience (how important is something) and valence (is something good or bad) to environmental stimuli?" Then, the researchers want to understand how the salience and valence information of such emotional experiences is stored and read out again in neuronal networks. Ultimately, the group of researchers examine how emotional behavioural responses are in turn spatially and temporally adjusted. For example, fear responses become stronger as threats get closer: a lion several kilometres away will elicit less of a response than one at arm's length. It can also be advantageous to withhold an immediate impulsive emotional decision in certain situations in order to obtain a greater gain in the future.

In summary, this research provides insights into how emotions in our brains help interpret our environment and guide behaviour.
Different brains interpret and react to our environment individually in very different ways. One question is how this diversity is established. This is certainly also due to the fact that neuronal circuits can be genetically pre-programmed to a certain extent, which favours different behavioural traits (such as fearful, impulsive, dominant) or psychiatric diseases such as anxiety disorders.

"Our previous understanding of emotional circuits now allows us to investigate how emotional computations are influenced by genes in a second project. An attractive hypothesis is that the genetic variance of several behavioural genes accumulates in certain nodes and thus controls the transition between behavioural types," Haubensak explains. "To explore this, we are developing methods that integrate neurophysiology with behavioural genetics. In the long term, we hope to characterise links between genetic variance, circuit dynamics and behavioural transitions that ultimately drive emotional diversity and psychiatric illnesses."

Regarding the person
Wulf Haubensak studied biochemistry at the University of Bochum and completed his PhD studies in neurobiology at the University of Heidelberg and the Max Planck Institute for Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics Dresden. A research period as a postdoc took him to the California Institute of Technology (USA). He then took over as head of the research group "Circuit mechanics of emotional behaviour" at the Research Institute for Molecular Pathology (IMP) at the Vienna BioCenter in Vienna. He was able to integrate several highly endowed ERC Starting and FWF DACH Grants, as well as a Boehringer Ingelheim research project, into his research.