A Ph.D. position is offered in the context of an existing collaboration between two units at KU Leuven : LaBGAS and Health Psychology.
The collaboration between both units has already led to joint supervision of master students, a recently defended PhD, and joint publications in leading psychology, gastroenterology, psychosomatic medicine and neuroscience journals.
The Health Psychology unit (Facutly of Psychology and Educational Sciences) aims at unravelling how psychological and somatic variables interact in health and disease from a biopsychosocial perspective.
Both fundamental and applied research is being conducted to understand how interoceptive sensations are psychologically processed and how cognitive, emotional, learning, and neural processes contribute to the initiation and maintenance of chronic somatic symptoms, illness and disability.
Key words in our group are pain , dyspnea , psychophysiology , associative learning , interoception and symptom perception .
The prevailing research paradigm is the controlled experiment. Measurements include self-reports, psychophysiological responses, and behavioural data.
Collaborative, interdisciplinary research is performed by a network of experienced researchers, clinicians and students who are fascinated by the behavioural science of health and disease.
The ultimate goal is to apply the gathered knowledge in the assessment and early identification of those people at risk, and in the development of customized cognitive-behavioural interventions in the pursuit of prevention and treatment of chronic somatic complaints.
The group has acquired 250 sq meter lab space, with labs that are well-equipped for the majority of the planned studies (Coulbourn modules for psychophysiological measurement, 128-channel EGI EEG systems, Digitimer DS 5 and DS7, Medoc Pathway, Cold Pressor task, Haptic Master 3-D robot arm).
There is also a productive network of collaborative research within and outside Europe. The group has also has strong connections with the University Hospital Leuven, as well as the Centre for Translational Psychological Research of Ziekenhuis Oost-Limburg (TRACE).
These partners are particularly valuable for the recruitment of patients, as well as the translation and dissemination of our project to clinical practice.
The Laboratory for Brain-Gut Axis Studies (LaBGAS), as part of the Translational Research Center for Gastrointestinal Disorders (TARGID, Faculty of Medicine) at KU Leuven, focuses on the multidisciplinary study of gut-brain interactions, with one of the key research lines being the study of psychobiological mechanisms of gastrointestinal sensitivity and visceral pain perception in health and functional gastrointestinal disorders.
The group has extensive experience with visceral stimulation methods, including mechanical and electrical stimulation of the esophagus, which will be used in the present project, as well as measuring various responses to such stimuli, ranging from self-reported perceptual measures to brain responses measured using functional neuroimaging techniques.
Furthermore, LaBGAS has a long-standing tradition of multidisciplinary collaborative research both within KU and University Hospitals Leuven and internationally.
Outcomes will include EEG, startle blink EMG, and perceptual outcome measures.
Expertise / experience with EEG, startle EMG, and / or Pavlovian conditioning procedures is desirable.
As a cardinal symptom of most functional gastrointestinal disorders, visceral pain and discomfort are very common and disabling.
Unfortunately, such symptoms remain poorly understood and are hard to treat. There is a general consensus that fear towards gastrointestinal sensations may play an important role, but the mechanisms underlying such fear as well as its impact on visceral symptom perception are unclear.
The project aims to elucidate these mechanisms, building on our previous work demonstrating that fear of gastrointestinal sensations can be experimentally established through Pavlovian learning processes and that such fear learning changes the way persons perceive gastrointestinal stimuli (Zamanet al.
Psychosom Med, 78, 248-258, 2016). In healthy volunteers, we will investigate the effects of fear learning to an initially non-painful gastrointestinal stimulus on different perceptual outcomes relevant to chronic visceral pain, including discrimination (the ability to discriminate slightly different stimuli) and habituation (decreased intensity perception upon repeated administration of an identical stimulus).
These effects will be studied both at the self-report and the neural level (using electroencephalography).