Research Interests

Prof. Dr. med. Martin Brüne, Psychiatrie, LWL University Hospital

My main research interest is Social Cognition in patients with psychiatric disorders, and how Social Cognition impacts on social interaction and interpersonal behaviour. Social cognition involves, among other abilities, the recognition and interpretation of emotions from facial cues, body posture or prosody (intonation), perception of social relationships such as kinship, and the ability to cognitively represent one’s own and other people’s mental states (“theory of mind”) in terms of beliefs, knowledge, intentions, desires or feelings. In the past, my collaborators and I have tested theory of mind abilities using quite simple cartoon stories. More recently, we have started to use neuroeconomic approaches to examine patients’ understanding of situations involving conditional cooperation, trust and reciprocity in (virtual) social exchange situations. We seek to explore the association of Social Cognition with variation in attachment style, neuropeptide activity and how this is reflected in brain activity using electroencephalography and functional brain imaging.
Another area of research comprises the neuroanatomical examination of von Economo neurons in post-mortem brains of patients with psychosis. The von Economo neurons represent a phylogenetically younger population of nerve cells, which have increased in size and density over evolutionary time, particularly in the anterior cingulate cortex, and the anterior insula. It is assumed that the von Economo neurons play a role in complex cognitive and emotional processes.
Finally, we have started to examine the effect of intranasally administered oxytocin on social cognition in patients with psychosis and personality disorders. Oxytocin is a neuropeptide hormone that is well known for its use in obstetrics. Quite recently, however, researchers have discovered that oxytocin has also the potential to increase trust and empathy, such that the substance is currently under intense investigation as regards its potential use in treating neuropsychiatric disorders such as autism, schizophrenia or anxiety disorders.

The research of my group is theoretically embedded in a broader interdisciplinary context focusing on the understanding of psychopathological conditions from an evolutionary perspective. At first sight, this approach does not seem straightforward, because psychopathological conditions – by definition – are maladaptive. However, if one views psychiatric disorders as extremes of variations rather than categorically distinct from a normative mean, it becomes plausible why addressing the adaptive equivalents of individual symptoms, syndromes or disorders matters.
The evolutionary perspective also includes the study of psychopathological symptoms and syndromes in nonhuman primates, specifically great apes in captivity, who often have a long-standing history of traumatisation and early separation from their mothers and other con-specifics. The mental life of these close relative of ours is similar in complexity. Some individuals need psychiatric-psychotherapeutic treatment, which allows drawing conclusions that are potentially relevant for the understanding of our own socialization and needs to improve mental health.