Disturbances of social interaction can be a consequence of psychiatric disorders, a risk factor or a factor that leads to their prolongation. Our understanding of psychiatric disorders, their complex etiopathogenesis and various treatment options can, therefore, benefit significantly from considering the fundamental role of social interaction and the close relationship between psychopathology and the social realm. Also, it is noteworthy that different psychiatric disorders can be characterized by transdiagnostic impairments of social interaction abilities, but that disorder-specific social impairments also exist. The neurobiological bases of these impairments, however, are only partially understood.
The so-called “social” neurosciences use functional neuroimaging techniques to investigate the neural correlates of social perception. Due to conceptual and methodological limitations, the overwhelming majority of studies in this field of research has so far focused on social perception “from an observer’s point of view”, i.e., on a situation where a human study participant is merely observing another individual, but does not stand in reciprocal relations to this other person (Fig. 1). In fact, only a small number of neuroimaging studies has managed to investigate social perception “from an interactor’s point of view”, i.e., in direct social interaction, which is unique in that it allows for the persons to see the effect of their actions on the world and on others. Consequently, the neurobiological foundations of psychosocial experiences in social interaction are only insufficiently characterized (Fig. 2). The aim of our research group is to continue the development of innovative and truly interactive experimental paradigms, which allow for the investigation of human brain function and of the neural mechanisms of social interaction under ecologically valid conditions.
To this end, we combine functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) with real-time analyses of eye-tracking data to generate interactive paradigms, which allow us to study the neural mechanisms of participation in (gaze-based) social interaction (Fig. 3) and to compare them to the neural correlates of social observation. Here, we use univariate and model-based as well as multivariate analysis approaches. These studies are complemented by pharmacogenetic and other interventions. Furthermore, we conduct behavioral, psychophysiological and resting state fMRI studies to investigate the impact of social interaction on prosocial behavior, capacities for self-regulation and decision-making and on intrinsic network connectivity. Also, we are using information from diffusion-based MRI measurements to investigate structure-function relationships of the human brain and their impact on social interaction capacities.
Based on the assumption that psychiatric disorders are characterized by impairments of social interaction as much as, or even more extensively than, social observation, we investigate these difficulties in close collaboration with the Max Planck Clinic for Psychiatry, Psychotherapy, Psychosomatics and Neurology across different patient groups (chronic depression, social phobia, personality disorders, high-functioning autism and schizophrenia) in line with a transdiagnostic approach. Here, our aim is to investigate commonalities and differences of disorders-associated changes in the neurofunctional systems that are relevant for successful participation in social interaction. Moreover, this neuroscientific information shall be used to evaluate and predict treatment effects in different groups. This translation of insights obtained from investigations of the neural mechanisms of social interaction in healthy individuals to individuals with psychiatric disorders may open up new perspectives for functional neuroimaging in psychiatry and psychotherapy and could promote the development of valid diagnostic procedures and specific treatment options that aim at understanding and restoring social interaction abilities.
In working towards the above-described aims, our group conducts interdisciplinary research and collaborates with a number of national and international partners.