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GRK III: PhD Students (2023-2026)

C1: Neuron-glia interaction in Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) “Understanding the plasticity of glia-neuron interactions in emotional dysfunction”

Diego Vesga

I did my Bachelor's in biology and my master's in biological sciences at the Pontifical Xaverian Univesity, where I started working on astrocytes and developed an interest in their role in different neurological disorders, during that period, I worked in a model of glucose deprivation and the use of selective estrogen modulators for their protection. After that, during my master's, I worked using a systems biology approach to understand the mechanisms of damage induced by a model of lipotoxicity with palmitic acid on astrocytes and the use of synthetic steroids as a protective agent. After that, I worked for two years at Emory University as a visiting Scholar researching the role of plasminogens in stroke, astrocytic activation, and Fragile X syndrome.

Currently, I am part of the group of Dr. Di Benedetto, and in the GRK I will work on understanding of MEFG10 pathway's role in the synaptic pruning process and how it can be modulated by the use of antidepressants and also, studying the differences in astrocytes phagocytic activity in both sexes during in the critical periods of development.

C2: Breaking the maternal-offspring bond: effects on the neuroimmune system

Sara Sheibani

I graduated from a 6-year veterinary medicine program.  In fact, it was my involvement in this field that lit an intriguing path for me, with a sense of deep link with my interest in the immune system and neurological disorders. For my thesis project, I investigated the effect of maternal separation and valproic acid injection on the occurrence of autistic-like behaviour in a rat model. In my other collaborations, I was responsible for conducting behavioural tests and molecular techniques in a rat model of glioblastoma.

In my GRK PhD project, I would assess the neurobiology of mother-infant bond disruption. While most studies have focused on the effects of bond disruption on offspring, few have explored the consequences on the mother's side. Therefore, I aim to investigate the impact of child loss on a mother's immune system through CRF system activity. I will analyze microglial cells and CRF system activity using various techniques, including RT-PCR, immunohistochemical staining, and pharmacological manipulation.

C3: The Effect of Stress on Functional Connectivity and Neuroendocrine Markers in Children and Adolescents with Depressive and Anxiety Disorders

Ricarda Jacob

I completed my undergraduate studies in Psychology at the University of Regensburg, where I developed a keen interest in neuroscience and studying psychopathologies using neuroimaging methods. During my master's thesis at the Department of Experimental Psychology, I gained valuable practical experience in the field of neuroimaging. As a member of the Emmy Noether junior research group, I investigated the neurochemical mechanisms of visual perceptual learning in aging using Magnetic Resonance Spectroscopy (MRS).

In the GRK, my project aims to explore the impact of psychosocial stress on functional connectivity and neuroendocrine markers in children and adolescents diagnosed with depressive and anxiety disorders. To achieve this, we plan to recruit 90 participants, who will be categorized into three groups: one with depressive disorders, another with comorbid depressive and anxiety disorders, and a healthy control group. We will obtain resting state fMRI scans both before and after the induction of stress using the Montreal Imaging Stress Task (MIST). Additionally, fMRI scans will be conducted during the stress induction, and for the analysis of structural connectivity, we will use Diffusion Tensor Imaging (DTI. Furthermore, saliva samples will be collected at various time points to measure peripheral levels of oxytocin and cortisol.

C4: Centrifugal cholinergic modulation of the bulbar vasopressin system

Nicolas Reichardt

During my undergraduate studies in advanced teaching for the subjects biology & chemistry, I’ve got the chance to work with the neurophysiology group at the Institute of Zoology of Regensburg university. My studies with them ignited my passion for electrophysiology, neuroanatomy and olfaction, which lead to my graduate thesis covering the analysis of recently discovered columnar activation patterns of granule cells in the rat olfactory bulb. After my graduation in 2023, I chose to stay in academia and commit myself to further research in the field of olfaction and its relation to social function.

As part of the GRK program, I will build on the work of my former supervisors, aiming to unravel the functioning of the intrinsic vasopressin system of the olfactory bulb. The focus of the project is on the mechanism underlying the acetylcholine mediated switch in vasopressinergic cells from inhibition to excitation, that happens during social interaction with a previously unknown conspecific. We hypothesize that different subtypes of local interneurons are responsible for this phenomenon. To achieve this goal, I will perform experiments using a variety of electrophysiological methods, such as Ca2+-imaging combined with whole-cell patch clamp recording, as well as neuroanatomical studies. 

C5: Neuronal functions of the FMN-subgroup formins

Antonia Heinrich

I graduated with a Master´s degree in Biology at the University of Regensburg. During my undergraduate studies, I acquired skills and techniques in molecular biology and focused on elucidating RNA-protein interactions in the Drosophila germline during my Master´s thesis. This made me want to understand how proteins function in a cellular context.

In the GRK, my project aims to understand the neurobiological function of FMN-subgroup Formins, which have been identified to impact learning. To elucidate their molecular function in neuronal synapses and memory formation, I am studying the nervous system of the starlet sea anemone Nematostella vectensis. They belong to the taxa of Cnidarians, the sister group of Bilaterian animals. Cnidarians have a net-like nervous system with a lack of centralization. However, associative learning has recently been demonstrated in the star anemone. This bottom-up research will help elucidate the underlying molecular principle of learning.

C6: Determinants of individualized socio-affective space and effects of psychosocial stress

Francisca Horn

I graduated with a Master’s degree in Psychology  at the University of Regensburg. Here I got in contact with neurobiology and stress research. In my master thesis, I invested stress and anxiety reactions of students associated with places in Regensburg that are perceived to be dangerous using ambulatory assessment.

In the GRK, the aim of my project is the investigation of the affective space of an individual and its potential determinants with special focus on psychosocial stress. For that I will first investigate the best method to assess this space appropriately for our research and afterwards determine its changes under changed circumstances for example due to psychosocial stress. This will yield us a more individualized approach towards the topic of emotions than it is by now. Since the goal is as well to assess the space’s changes during emotional dysfunctions, assessment of an individual’s affective space might have the potential to help diagnosing affective disorders like depression in the future.

C7: The role of microproteins in social fear

Stefanie Kau

I achieved both my B.Sc. and M.Sc. degree in Biology from the University of Regensburg. During my studies I developed great interest in the field of neuroscience and started investigating social fear and its underlying mechanisms in mice.

With my project in the GRK I have the opportunity to further investigate the molecular background of social fear, by studying the putative involvement of microproteins. Microproteins are a relatively new topic of research and over the past decade, a growing number of studies focused on identifying these proteins and their potential functions. However, the role of microproteins in behavior remains unknown. Therefore, the first goal of my project is to identify microproteins involved in social fear. For this purpose, I will isolate and sequence specifically RNA which is translated by ribosomes from neurons of social fear conditioned mice. Once possible candidates are identified, I will examine the effect of their up- and down-regulation on behavior as well as their involvement in molecular signaling pathways.

C8: Neuronal circuits underlying social fear in mice: Role of septal OXT and CRF signaling

Laura Stangl

I studied biology at the University of Regensburg and did my bachelor's and master's thesis at the Department of behavioral and molecular neurobiology. During my master's thesis, I investigated whether behavioral changes introduced by the social fear conditioning (SFC) paradigm can be transmitted to following generations. While I was staying at the neurobiology department the GRK applications opened up and I applied for a position since I wanted to continue my studies in the field of neurobiology.

In my PhD project within the GRK, I will build on the results obtained during a former project of our lab, which showed that the oxytocin (OXT) signaling in the lateral septum (LS) is crucial for the social fear expression in female mice. The LS is known to be involved in several social behaviors, such as aggression, social behavior, as well as sexual and maternal behavior. Moreover, the LS can be seen as a relay center, which incorporates cognitive information and converges it to several downstream targets, thereby modulating the behavioral response. In my project, I will investigate the innate changes during lactation and the respective consequences on the behavioral output in the context of SFC. Therefore, I want to clarify the role of the upregulated OXT- and downregulated corticotropin-releasing factor (CRF) system during lactation on the social fear expression and shed light on possible neuronal circuits underlying this phenomenon. 

C9: Choosing between competing needs in mice: Role of the Oxytocin system

Niranjan Biju

I graduated with integrated Bachelor´s and Master´s degrees from the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER) Pune, India. During my stay at IISER, I became interested in Neurobiology. This interest eventually led to my Master‘s thesis, where I studied the adaptability of fear responses depending on animals‘ internal state via a neuropeptide mechanism. My thesis research made me interested in pursuing further research training as a graduate student in the field of Neurobiology, with a particular focus on the influence of neuropeptides in behaviour.

In my GRK PhD project, I will study the role of the neuropeptide Oxytocin (OXT) in prioritising one need over another based on the situation and thereby shift the preference to the appropriate need.
I plan to use different chemogenetic and pharmacological approaches to elucidate the neural circuits involved in the OXT-mediated preference between two needs: Food and social. The project aims to provide a holistic view of how the OXT system orchestrates the interplay between competing needs, shedding light on its pivotal role in decision-making processes under both physiological and pathological conditions.

C10: Mal-adaptive consequences of early life social trauma on adult behaviour and neuronal circuitries

Melanie Kabas

While pursuing my undergraduate degree in biology at the University of Regensburg, I was thrilled to discover the field of Neuroscience, which aligns seamlessly with my interests by merging the domains of Biology, Medicine, and Psychology. In my Bachelor thesis at the department of Molecular and Cellular Neurobiology I investigated the consequences of chronic psychosocial stress in mice. Continuing with my master’s also at the University of Regensburg I slightly switched the field from social stress to social fear for my master thesis at the department of Molecular and Behavioural Neurobiology and first got in contact with a project examining the mal-adaptive consequences of social fear conditioning (SFC) in adolescent mice.
Fortunately, I got the opportunity to continue working on this project now as a member of the GRK. Within this project I aim to investigate the acute and long-lasting effects of social fear elicited during adolescence, which represents a critical developmental phase of heightened susceptibility to mental disorders. Here, I am especially interested in the impairment of adult socio-emotional behaviours and putative alterations of brain neuropeptide systems such as the oxytocin (OXT) system. Based on previous studies and data of my master thesis, I will focus on the ventromedial hypothalamus (VMH). This brain region, primarily recognized for its roles in regulating sexual behaviour, aggression, and feeding patterns, has also been shown to be involved in social fear and social avoidance learning. With my project I want to shed light on the precise role of the VMH and the hypothalamic OXT system in the modulation of adolescent social fear.

C11: Changes in Brain Communication and Cognition in Depressive Patients who undergo Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT) compared to Treatment as Usual (TAU)

Lorenz Kick

Following my Bachelor in Psychology, I completed the M.Sc. in Psychology and the M.A. in Criminology at the University of Regensburg. During my master studies, I developed further interest in clinical psychology, as well as in cognitive neuroscience.
My project gives me the opportunity to combine these topics and contribute to the scientific advance in the field of ECT, which still has a lot of unfulfilled potential in the clinical praxis. Using different methods of cognitive psychology and molecular biology, my project aims to better understand the impact that ECT has on brain communication and cognition, and the neurobiological underpinnings of these processes. I plan to compare effects of ECT to treatment as usual in patients with depression regarding depressive symptomatology, cognitive performance, brain connectivity, and expression of certain hormones and proteins.


Alice Stephan

I graduated with a B.Sc. in psychology and both a B.Sc. and an M.Sc. in mathematics from the University of Regensburg. During my psychology studies, I developed a strong interest in the field of neuroscience. I had the opportunity to explore this interest further through several research assistant positions, which allowed me to delve into areas related to cognitive neuroscience and the neurobiology of olfaction. In my mathematics studies, I also became involved with topics in computational science and programming.

My studies within the GRK combine these different fields. In my project, we aim to decode emotional states in humans from brain activity measured with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) using machine learning algorithms. Since there is a unique link between emotion perception and olfaction, our approach involves investigating emotions with olfactory stimuli.
Additionally, for decoding to be effective across individuals, machine learning algorithms require spatial correspondence of activation patterns across subjects. To address this issue, we propose to apply the so-called hyperalignment method – a mathematical approach that transforms individual brain activation patterns into a common model. Combining this type of research with clinical data could potentially enhance the diagnosis of disorders associated with emotional dysregulation.

C13: Molecular Mechanisms of Major Depressive Disorder

Artiola Ndou

I started my undergrad studies with a bachelor’s degree in Biotechnology at the University of Turin (Italy). Afterwards, I moved to Ulm (Germany) to pursue my interest in neuroscience. Here, I obtained my master’s degree in Molecular and Translational Neuroscience. During my master’s thesis, I investigated the energetic metabolism of the immune cells of PTSD patients, with particular focus on the mitochondria bioenergetics.

My project in the GRK aims to uncover more information about the molecular pathomechanisms of Major Depressive Disorders. We use iPSCs from MDD patients and matched healthy controls and induce differentiation into neurons and astrocytes to investigate mitochondria functionality, molecular signalling pathways and electrophysiological properties.  In addition, we are working on an in vitro stress model and testing few different treatment options available or proposed for MDD (eg. antidepressants – SSRI/SNRI, neurosteroids) to have insights into the molecular mechanism of action of each of them and the effect on the different cell types of the two cohorts.