Universiteit Leiden

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Research project

Topic: Novelty and enrichment

One of the most crucial aspects of our behaviour is our motivation to explore novel environments and interact with new people. This became painfully clear during the COVID-19 lockdowns, when many people suffered from lack of new experiences and real-life social interactions. The relevance of novelty also becomes apparent when we see how novelty influences our brain and behavior. Previous work has shown that visiting a novel (virtual) place can promote memory and experiencing novelty can promote the forgetting of fearful associations. As such, novelty holds a promise for the development of interventions aimed at promoting memory and treating anxiety disorders.

Judith Schomaker

Description of topic

When visiting a new place learning about where to expect danger and where to find rewards is crucial for survival. Animal studies have reliably shown that exploring a new environment enhances plasticity in the brain, specifically in the hippocampus, to promote such learning. Thus far, very few studies have investigated the effects of spatial novelty on learning in humans, but some preliminary studies have suggested that novel versus familiar environments promote memory in humans too.

In one line of research (RL 1) we aim to elucidate aspects of exploring a novel environment that underlie such memory benefits by using virtual reality (VR). This method allows participants to actively explore realistic, but well-controlled environments in the lab. We particulary aim to identify the neural mechanisms driving the effects of novelty on memory. using EEG (especially theta oscilations) and neuroimaging methods (e.g. fMRI).

In antother line of research (RL 2) we aim to investigate whether novelty can be used to promote fear extinction. The role of emotional arousal and indicidual differences will be linked to nearal signatures of stress.

Both lines of research provide the required groundwork needed to translate the beneficial effects of novelty on memory and fear extinction as observed in the lab into clinical applications. In particular, we aim to develop clinical applications aimed at counteracting or slowing down age- or disease-related memory decline (RL 1) and therapies aimed at reducing fearful responses in patients with anxiety disorders (RL 2).

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