Stage: Deciphering the neuronal underpinnings of (pro)social behaviors

Deciphering the neuronal underpinnings of (pro)social behaviors
6 - 12 maanden
Dagelijkse begeleiding
Frédéric Michon / Julian Packheiser


[This vacancy is closed for the remaining 6 months (14/10/2021)]

How come we feel a sense of joy when observing another laughing, or distress when witnessing a car accident? How can we learn simply through observing others? What prevents us from harming others? All these questions find some answers in the dynamic of the neural circuits -formed by distributed groups of interconnected neurons- that support such behaviors. The aim of this vacancy is to contribute to the study of these neural circuits during (pro)social behaviors in rat models, using behavioral assays together with electrode-dense electrophysiological recordings and brain manipulations via for example optogenetic tools.

What we look for

  • Above all, neuroscience enthusiasm, with a strong drive and motivation to engage and learn
  • An affinity with programming languages (e.g., python, R) and experience with analytical and statistical approaches are appreciated
  • Prior experience working with animal models and rats is a plus

What we offer

  • The opportunity to gain a firsthand experience with a large variety of topics, from behavioral training, to electrophysiological recordings in vivo and advanced data and statistical analysis
  • An experience as part of a multidisciplinary research laboratory consisting of a wide variety of scientists with diverse expertise and approaches
  • A friendly and collaborative environment.

Potential topics for projects

Effect of experience on the neuronal circuits supporting emotional contagion
Like us, rats are sensitive to the emotions that are displayed by conspecifics, and they show distress when witnessing another rat being in pain, a phenomenon known as ‘emotional contagion’. At the neuronal level, such behavior is thought of as being supported by an emotional mirror system, that is, neurons that are active both when experiencing and witnessing a given emotional state. Having experienced traumatic events also greatly influences emotional contagion for aversive stimuli in rats. The aim of this project is to study the changes in the neural circuit contributing to emotional contagion that are triggered by an aversive experience.

Investigate the neural dynamics of (social) learning
Learning from new experiences is an ubiquitous capacity in the animal kingdom. However, the intricate dynamics of learning from one experience to the next are still not well understood on the neural level. We plan to subject rats to both self and social experiences and study the trial-by-trial modifications in the neural circuits to gain a better understanding of how we are capable of learning so quickly about changes in our environment.

Studying positive emotional contagion in rat
Nowadays, emotional contagion and other social interactions are for a large majority studied in the context of aversive experiences in rats. With this project, we seek to develop behavioral assays to enable the study of positive emotional sharing in rats. In order to do so, we plan on using ‘rat tickling’ to assess whether it displays positive emotions when they witness a conspecific being tickled in a similar fashion as when we smile when observing someone having a laugher.

Neural underpinnings of harm aversion in rats
Beyond feeling what a conspecific feels, rats can also act upon it. In the lab, a behavioral assay which enables us to study the aversion that rats have towards harming another rat when obtaining food. Interestingly, not all animals display such a care for a conspecific. The project will consist in optimizing the behavioural assays and study the neuronal underpinning of harm-to-other avoidance in rats, when an animal does or does not restrain from harming a conspecific.

Studying place avoidance by-proxy in rats
The rodent hippocampus has provided breakthrough discoveries on how we represent our spatial environment and navigate through it in the past decades. Recent studies have shown that hippocampal place cells, i.e. cells that encode the current location in the environment, represent the location of conspecifics in addition to one’s own location. In this project, we aim to find out if rats learn to avoid places after witnessing a conspecific receiving footshocks at that same location. Such a paradigm would then enable us to assess the changes in hippocampal representations of space for oneself and others, after footshock observation in a particular location in an environment.

Monitoring facial expression with a head-mounted camera in rats
Determination of emotional states in animals is notoriously difficult due to a lack of self-report. While freezing has long been the gold standard to determine fearful responses, this behavior by itself is not always conclusive about the animal’s current emotional state. Novel tools to provide a more holistic ethogram include head-mounted cameras that can capture facial expressions and pupillometry of animals. Here, we will establish the technical basis for such a device and will use machine-learning tools to read-out these parameters.


If you are interested in one of these topics or want to send a spontaneous application, please contact Julian Packheiser ([email protected]) and/or Frédéric Michon ([email protected]) .