Interoception is a main research topic of the Department of Clinical & Health Psychology. The construct is defined as the perception and the processing of body-internal signals (e.g. perception of the heartbeat, respiration as well as hunger, satiety and thirst). Previous research has shown that interoception is a key information associated with emotions, cognitions and self-regulating processes. In this context, the department focuses on different research areas, described briefly below, based on several projects.
An important research goal is treating various methodical procedures for measuring interoception. In particular, this includes objective parameters (e.g. heartbeat perception, water load test, breathing resistance) and subjective parameters (e.g. questionnaires like the Multidimensional Assessment of Interoceptive Awareness or the confidence rating after the heartbeat perception task). Moreover, interoception is associated with several brain areas including somatosensory cortex, insula, anterior cingular cortex, ventromedial and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. Corresponding methodical procedures are complemented by electroencephalography (EEG).
Interoception, mental disorders and health prevention
Interoception is investigated in diverse clinical populations (e.g. patients with eating disorders like anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa or patients with somatoform disorders) before and during therapy. According to the finding that those populations show decreased interoceptive abilities, current research projects deal with health-promoting measures (e.g. body scan or yoga). A further interesting research focus is the alteration of interoception by stimulating procedures like transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS). Moreover, our Department investigates factors influencing interoception, for example nutrition, physical activity and stress experience.
Depression, eating disorders, anxiety disorders, chronic pain
Our department also focuses on potential interoceptive mechanisms involved in the development and maintenance of a wide variety of symptoms and clinical conditions, including depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and chronic pain, among others. Disentangling these mechanisms may shed light on new potential therapeutic targets for these disorders.
In the area of eating research, for example, we are investigating changes in the perception of satiety as a possible basis for changes in eating behavior taking psychological and physiological parameters into account.
Emotions and emotion regulation
One of the research interests of our department focuses on the link between interoception and the processing of emotional stimuli at both the self-report, physiological, and neurocognitive levels. In addition, our department is also interested in the relationship between interoceptive processes and emotion regulation (i.e., the ability of individuals to modulate an emotion using some kind of strategy).
In one research approach we use neurostimulation of interoceptive brain structures to draw conclusions on their involvement in emotion processing. We are also investigating the influence of interoceptive processes on the developing emotion regulation of adolescents.
Stress and prevention of stress
In a current research project, we are investigating the extent to which a chatbot-based intervention can reduce the experience of stress through daily psychoeducation and exercises (e.g. breathing exercises).
Further research areas concerning interoception
In particular, personality (see studies referring to the disorder alexithymia) and physical factors influencing affective and cognitive processes as well as pain perception and rating is a separate research focus. Further research topics question interoception during aging, cognitive performances and vegetative processes, “crossmodal” integration of different interoceptive inputs and control of eating behaviour. Recently, the association of interoception and genes are investigated, in cooperation with the Department of Molecular Psychology at Ulm University.
Cooperation partners and laboratories
Especially for the investigation of associations between interoception and mental disorders, the psychosomatic clinics of Ulm University and Windach am Ammersee are cooperation partners. Since 2013, the department of Clinical & Health Psychology takes part in the project “Komm mit in das gesunde Boot“ (“Join the healthy boat”) . The project focuses at preventive measures for promoting physical activity and healthy eating behaviour as well as reducing media consumption of children in kindergartens and primary schools. In the occupational health management of Ulm University, we are also represented actively, for example in the context of the project „Der Eselsberg bewegt sich“. Moreover, we cooperate with the Eating Behavior Laboratory in Salzburg, treating bidirectional influences of stress on nutrition and physical activity via smartphone measurements. There are also collaborations with the Neurostimulation Section of the Department of Psychiatry at Ulm University Hospital under the direction of Prof. Dr. Thomas Kammer, with the Clinic for Psychosomatic Medicine and Psychotherapy at Ulm University Hospital (Prof. Dr. Harald Gündel, Dr. Marc N. Jarczok, Dr. Katja Weimer), with the Institute for Distributed Systems, Ulm University (Echo Meißner, M. Sc. & Dr. Benjamin Erb), Labsitec of Valencia University, Prof. Dr. Micah Allen at the University of Aarhus in Denmark, with Prof. Andreas Schwerdtfeger and Dr. Christian Rominger at the University of Graz and Prof. Richard Lane at the University of Arizona.
Our laboratories are located in the rooms 47.1.227 and 47.0.235. They are equipped with several portable physiological measuring instruments and stationary devices like high-resolution-EEG, opportunities of neurostimulation (TMS and tDCS) or pain stimulation.