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Big Emotions in the Cerebellum

17. September 2019

Learning and Unlearning in MRT

The University of Duisburg-Essen reports on their news portal: The cerebellum controls movements and helps to control emotions. Otto Waalkes already knew this, as his sketch “Cerebellum to cerebrum: boys, don’t get excited, you’re going to lose anyway” shows. Scientists from the Medical Faculty of the UDE have taken a closer look at the cerebellum – especially at its ability to make predictions on the basis of previous experience and to learn from non-existent predictions.

This learning effect has been known for movement for some time. “We have now been able to prove that this also applies to the learning and unlearning of unpleasant emotions,” says Dagmar Timmann-Braun, who holds the Chair of Experimental Neurology at the Clinic for Neurology at the University Hospital Essen (UK Essen). In addition, Dagmar Timmann-Braun is project manager of the subprojects A05 and F02 of our SFB 1280.

If you have to experience something very unpleasant in a certain situation, the external circumstances often make an exact impression on you. A certain smell or a certain noise can later be enough to experience the unpleasant situation repeatedly – and you react anxiously. It often takes a long time before such stimuli are no longer associated with the experience.

This learning and unlearning has been simulated by the research team in the laboratory. “While we showed the subjects a picture, we gave their hand an electrical stimulus. After a few times, a fear reaction occurs when we see the picture,” explains Thomas Ernst, PhD student A05. “At the same time, we looked at the activity of the cerebellum on an ultra-high-field magnetic resonance tomograph (MRT) at the Erwin L. Hahn Institute.”

The activity of the cerebellum increased when images were shown and an electrical stimulus was expected. However, the cerebellum was most active when the electrical stimulus did not come unexpectedly. “This can be interpreted as an error signal in the cerebellum,” says Thomas Ernst.

The results of the study now published in eLife show that the cerebellum plays a role in predictions and in particular in the recognition of errors in these predictions, not only in the control of movements, but also in the control of emotions. The work was developed within the framework of our Collaborative Research Centre SFB 1280 in cooperation with colleagues from the Ruhr University Bochum.

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