Social neuroendocrinology: Neurobiology and biopsychology of social relationships and health
Our research focuses on the relationship between social relationships (especially couple relationships) and mental as well as physical health.
On the one hand, we are investigating how hormones (e.g. oxytocin or sex hormones) influence couple behavior by using experimental aproach such as administration of synthetic hormones and by the analysis of varying endogenous hormone levels. On the other hand, we are interested in how behaviour in partnerships influences biological parameters (e.g. corticosteroids, sex hormones, epigenetic changes, neurophysiological markers) in healthy and patient populations.
We want to gain a deeper understanding of these processes and make this knowledge applicable in clinical interventions.
NEUROENDOCRINE MECHANISMS SOCIAL ISOLATION AND PSYCHOBIOLOGICAL STRESS DURING THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC
Due to requirements of contact restriction and social distancing for the Covid-19 prevention, health-beneficial effects of social relationships are currently reduced. At the same time, threat directly by the disease, as well as social and economic consequences, has increased significantly.
At the psychobiological level, the effect of social support is mediated through the physical stress systems, including the neuropeptide oxytocin, the steroid hormone cortisol and catecholamines of the sympathetic nervous system. During the current crisis, we would like to assess the effects of a) the subjective threat of the virus on individuals, couples and families and b) the simultaneous restrictions on social contact by collecting saliva samples in participants' daily lives in everyday life using psychobiological ecological momentary assessment.
Neural correlates of couple interaction*
In cooperation with the Department of Clinical Psychology (Head: Peter Kirsch, Ph.D.) of the Central Institute of Mental Health in Mannheim (ZI Mannheim), we investigate the neurophysiological reactions of both partners during instructed standardized emotional dyadic interaction. Our focus is on the synchronization of physiological processes and the influence of relationship characteristics.
NEUROBIOLOGICAL MECHANISMS OF SOCIAL SAFETY LEARNING
As human beings, we are constantly monitoring our surroundings to protect ourselves from potential danger. Social information is particularly important in order to respond adequately. However, we are not only talking about learning fear, but also about learning the safety signals that inhibit fear. Our previous research in the field of social cognition and learning suggests that both the neuropetide oxytocin (OT) alone and in interaction with the sex hormones testosterone (TE) and estradiol (E2) play a central role in fear in a social context. Based on this basis, the study examines the interactional influence of OT and sex hormones on the learning of social and non-social safety stimuli.
The effects of a cognitively-based compassion training on health and social interaction in depressed patients and their partners
(Mechanisms and interventions in Major Depression)
Affective disorders - in particular major depression – are among the most prevalent mental disorders which accounts for their relevance to the public health system. This project focuses on perceptual processes during social interaction in depression covering the field of clinical diagnostics, therapy and evaluation research. In particular chronic depression reduces the ability for empathy and compassion, cognitive perspective taking and increases self-focusing. Neurobiological findings indicate changes in endocrine, physiological and immunological parameters of the stress response, as well as reduced activation of reward-related CNS mechanisms during the processing of social stimuli.
Combining established and new methodological approaches a clinical sample with depressive patients and their significant partners will be compared with healthy control couples during a standardized positive social interaction task (cross-sectional design) as well as before and after an intervention in the depressed couples (longitudinal design).
Thus our approach is twofold:
Firstly, we will evaluate the correlation of attention-related processes (measured by real-time documentation of eye movements i.e. eye-tracking) between depressive patients and their significant partner and healthy control couples during a standardized positive interaction task in the laboratory setting. This control group design allows for comparisons of possible deficits with regard to interaction and communication skills between the clinical sample and healthy couples. The social interaction will be additionally characterized by stress biometrics with the aim to identify potential biopsychophysiological mediators (case-control study).
Secondly, we will analyze the effect on couples’ positive interaction behavior and stress biometrics as well as effectiveness of a 10-week compassion training program (Cognitively Based Compassion-Training / CBC-Training, a program of Emory University, Atlanta, GA, USA) on biopsychophysiological mediators such as endocrine, immune and peripherphysiological parameters using a randomized-controlled trial design. These include eye-tracking, heart rate, cortisol and video based interaction analysis as well as self and external assessments.
The CBC-Training will be complemented by couple, systemic, cognitive-behavioral and interpersonal therapeutic approaches. The effectiveness of the training will be evaluated via the individual changes in stress biometrics and in comparison to the control group (TAU).
The aim is to authenticate the effectiveness of a compassion based group intervention for couples.
It will be tested if an additional group intervention might have further benefits in the treatment of depression due to positive effects on social interaction skills.