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72076 Tübingen

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Cognitive neuropsychiatry

Cognitive neuropsychiatry is a relatively new field of research in psychology and psychiatry. It deals with the causes of psychiatric symptoms and psychopathological phenomena, especially with their neural basis. Cognitive neuropsychiatry also deals with normal psychological processes and their changes in psychiatric diseases.

The cognitive neuropsychiatry research group in Tübingen is concerned with basic research on emotions (such as the feeling of exhilaration), personality traits (such as the "sense of humour") and psychiatric symptoms (such as formal thought disorders).The current focus is on studies of "functional neuroanatomy", i.e., which brain regions are particularly significant for certain psychopathological symptoms or personality traits. Our main method is functional magnetic resonance imaging. In addition, we conduct behavioral experiments on healthy individuals and patients and work together with other disciplines (neuroradiology, personality psychology, linguistics) on an interdisciplinary basis.


frontend.sr-only_#{element.contextual_1.children.icon}: +49 7071 29-86124


frontend.sr-only_#{element.contextual_1.children.icon}: PD Dr. Alexander Rapp

E-mail address: alexander.rapp@med.uni-tuebingen.de

frontend.sr-only_#{element.contextual_1.children.icon}: Prof. Dr. Barbara Wild

E-mail address: barbara.wild@med.uni-tuebingen.de

Current projects

Current projects

Irony is a linguistic device and social cognition at the same time. Being unconditionally indirect makes it already by definition a prime example of non-literal language. The special feature of pragmatic interpretation, apart from the common grammatical definition as the "opposite of what is said", is the necessary contextualisation and adoption of perspective for the process of understanding. Despite (meta-)cognitive complexity, which requires its decoding on the recipient side, it is found as a ubiquitous figure of speech in everyday discourse. Conversations, films, literature, social media - irony places itself in any linguistic communicative space, is necessarily intentional, and thus occupies a key role within social cognition alongside other tropes.

The well-known limitations of irony comprehension in children and autism can be attributed to impaired perspective taking and pragmatic skills. In this project, the investigation of the processing of irony will be transferred to other clinical pictures (borderline personality disorder, schizophrenia) and defined in more detail. In addition to the construction of an ecologically valid paradigm from videos, interactive design and the possibility to specifically vary conditions of irony comprehension, special attention is currently paid to possible differences within and between the various psychopathologies and related to other language figures, personality traits and social cognitions.

Humour as a character trait can facilitate human relationships and represent a positive coping strategy. This project investigates to what extent humour is present as a character trait in psychiatric patients, especially those with depression or schizophrenia, to what extent the handling of humorous material is altered, whether humour plays a role as a coping strategy, whether patients can train this coping strategy and whether Hzumour possibly represents a protective factor.

Language comprehension difficulties occur early in the course of schizophrenic disorders and are relevant both clinically and for understanding the pathophysiology of the disorder. A long-known feature is the difficulty in correctly understanding non-literal, "transferred" meanings (such as metaphors, metonymies, irony). Different forms of non-literal language are investigated in healthy subjects and patients with schizophrenic psychosis of varying severity using fMRI. Preliminary results in healthy subjects indicate different functional neuroanatomy for different types of non-literal meanings. Schizophrenic patients show impaired activation especially in core regions of language perception. The current studies also aim to determine the influence of psychopathology on brain activation, such as the influence of the severity of formal thinking disorders.

Interindividual differences between individual subjects are detectable in most fMRI studies of higher cognitive functions (such as cartoon comprehension or whole sentence reading). Although these may exhibit remarkable intra-individual stability, they have been insufficiently explored. However, numerous studies point to an influence of personality variables. In a current study, the influence of humor and exhilarability (in the sense of a personality trait) is investigated. Paradigms of humor perception (understanding of cartoons) and the perception of positive emotions are applied.

Definitions and explanations of terms

Definitions of the term "emotion" exist almost as many as authors who have written about it. By emotions, following Plutchik's (1984) definition, we mean "complex response sequences to stimuli involving cognitive evaluations, subjective changes, autonomic and neural effects, impulses to action, and behavior." It still seems important to add Damasio (2000) that triggering stimuli can be both internal (e.g., tissue damage with pain, but also the imagination of a situation) and external to the individual (e.g., the perception of another person). Thus, our idea is that emotions represent convolutions of reactions that occur at different levels and include physiological changes such as neuronal activations or even heart rate acceleration, internal perception of one's state, and observable behavior. These changes do not have to be equally pronounced on all levels - e.g. the externally observable behaviour is usually adapted to the respective situation.

It is useful to use the distinction made, for example, by Damasio (2000) between emotions ("emotion") and moods ("mood"), the former being regarded as a short-lived state, the latter as a longer-lived state; affect refers to the interplay of emotions and feelings including motivation etc. and emotions ("feelings") are the subjective perception of emotions. In psychology there was a debate in the 1970s about whether emotions need to be conscious, but this will not be discussed further here (see, for example, the entertaining summary in the book by LeDoux (1996)). In the meantime, however, it has been acknowledged that a considerable part of what constitutes an emotion takes place unconsciously and that an emotion does not necessarily have to include a conscious evaluation.

Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) is a research method of functional brain imaging that can be used to depict which areas of the brain are required for a specific cognitive performance compared to a control condition. In simplified terms, the principle is as follows: magnetic resonance imaging can be used to visualize the magnetic properties of tissue. In clinical routine, the procedure is used, for example, to produce structural images of the brain. In addition, fMRI makes use of the fact that the local blood flow in a brain area changes when many neurons are active in this area (this is called the BOLD effect). Since blood contains iron and thus has special magnetic properties, this also leads to a weak but measurable change in magnetic properties, and this can be measured and graphically represented.

So, using a complex evaluation methodology, it is possible to determine which areas of the brain are differently active during two different conditions (for example, while watching a funny versus a non-funny cartoon). This provides further insight into which functions are represented in which areas of the brain (basic research). However, direct investigations of whether a certain disease is present or whether the test subject is "thinking" something specific are not (yet) possible with this method.


  • Psychotherapy Research Group, UKPP Tübingen (Prof. Dr. Klingberg)
  • Section for Experimental Nuclear Magnetic Resonance of the CNS, University of Tübingen (Dr. Michael Erb)
  • School of Computing, University of Leeds (Dr. Katja Markert)
  • AG Psychophysiology (Dr. Ehlis, S. Schneider)
  • University Hospital for Psychiatry and Psychotherapy, Marburg (Prof. Dr. Kircher, Dr. Irina Falkenberg)
  • Institute for Personality Psychology and Diagnostics, University of Zurich (Prof. Ruch)

Selected publications

  • Felsenheimer A, Kieckhaefer C, Rapp A. (2017, October). A new German language test for irony comprehension in psychiatric disorders. Poster accepted for presentation at the World Congress of Psychiatry 2017, Berlin.
  • Schreier A, Rapp A. Neural correlates of faux pas-detection: the role of schizotypal personality traits. npj Schizophrenia. 2016; 2: 107. DOI: 10.1038/npjschz.2016.9.
  • Rapp AM, Herbert C, Ethofer T, Erb M, Arslan M. Neural correlates of experimentally induced speech-illusions in non-clinical subjects: an fMRI-study using the white noise paradigm. Schizophrenia Bulletin. 2015; Supplement 1: 237.
  • Schneider S, Wagels L, Häußinger FB, Fallgatter AJ, Ehlis AK. Rapp AM. Haeodynamic and neural markers of pragmatic language comprehension in schizophrenia.World J Biol Psychiat. 2015.
  • Ettinger U, Mohr C, Gooding DC, Cohen AS, Rapp A, Haenschel C, Park S. Cognition and Brain Function in Schizotypy: A Selective Review. Schizophrenia Bulletin. 2015; 2: 417-426.

Certificates and Associations