@orf2 – Covid-19, whatever next?

Using our brain we predict the future based on what we have learnt in the past. But what if there is no precedence to learn from? How can we cope with lock-downs, isolation, existential crises, and fear of an unknown infection?

Covid-19 brings most of us out of their comfort zone but we are built for enduring hardships and uncertainty.

I was invited to an afternoon TV talk show to discuss my outlook on the future with social economics Prof. Marina Fischer-Kowalski, psychologist Irina Nalis, behavioral biologist Gregor Fauma and Matthias & Tristan Horx.



The Interdisciplinary College (IK) will take from 13 to 20 March 2020 in Günne/Möhnesee, Germany, with this year’s focus theme: Curiosity, Risk & Reward: Shaping Autonomous Intelligence.

Together with Till Bockemühl (University of Cologne) I will teach Introduction to Neuroscience

The brain, the cause of – and solution to – all of life’s problems. According to our brains it is the most fascinating structure in the known universe. Consisting of about 86 billion neurons of which each can form thousands of connections to other neurons it is also the most complex structure in the known universe. In this course we would like to give you a rough guide and introduction to the basic principles, fundamental theories, and methods of neuroscience.

We will demonstrate that neuroscience can be seen as a multi-modal, multi-level, multi-disciplinary research framework that aims at addressing the challenges of this megalomaniac scientific endeavor. We will see that different frameworks and methods can lead to conflicting empirical evidence, theoretical assumptions, and heated debates. However, we argue that this might be the only way to uncover the mysteries of our brain. Read more about our course.

@orf1 – okidoki on fear

Finally, I was asked for an interview in the children’s television show okidoki. A childhood’s dream come true :) I was asked to explain what happens in the brain and the body when we are afraid. A very suitable topic for Halloween, I guess.

More evidence for dopamine’s involvement in creativity

Anna-Lisa Schuler has been working on our CREAM data and found out that people with stronger brain connectivity of the dopaminergic midbrain also show higher levels of creativity. She did her analysis on resting state data, this means, at that time our participants did not perform any specific task. Instead, while lying inside our comfortable MRI scanner, they engaged in daydreaming. Karl Friston has called this state of mind unconstrained cognition because people are not distracted by our experimental stimuli.

We previously observed stronger dopaminergic midbrain connectivity in people who have an Aha! moment. Now, Anna-Lisa’s new finding links a personality trait to brain connectivity. The next question is, does frequent engagement in creative trinking and repeated experience of Aha! moments boost your creativity – or are creative people more likely to have Aha! moments?

Schuler A, Tik M, Sladky R, Luft CDB, Hoffmann A, Woletz M, Zioga I, Bhattacharya J, Windischberger C. Modulations in resting state networks of subcortical structures linked to creativity. Neuroimage. 2019 Mar 29;195:311-319. 2019.

Is this is a trend?

Trends are not always a good thing. Sometimes trends can obscure the things that are really important. A common problem in signal processing is that measured data can be affected by signal drifts – for example, due to temperature changes in your sensor or the thing that you try to measure. To get rid of these drifts the signal can be detrended. This filtering is a standard data processing step for many applications.

However, in real-time fMRI we need to perform this detrending online, that is, while we acquire the data. This is not so trivial, so Rotem Kopel, Frank Scharnowski, and I wrote a paper about it.

Kopel R & Sladky R, Laub P, Koush Y, Robineau F, Hutton C, Weiskopf N, Vuilleumier P, Van De Ville D, Scharnowski F. No time for drifting: Comparing performance and applicability of signal detrending algorithms for real-time fMRI. NeuroImage 2019

sweetData: a versatile open-source tool for lab data management and validation

Note: this abstract has been submitted as an abstract for the OHBM2019 meeting in Rome, Italy.

I am interested in collaborations on this project. If you are interested and have experience with JavaScript/Node.js/Vue.js, please get in touch with me.

This is a current development snapshot of our project. Contact me if you intend to use it in your lab to get the latest updates.

Introduction. A ubiquitous challenge for neuroimaging and other forms of empirical research is the organization and quality assessment of collected data. Nowadays there are excellent standards for organizing datasets, such as BIDS (Gorgolewski et al., 2017)and the OpenfMRI format (Poldrack et al., 2013). These structured datasets are optimized for machine-processability, enabling the use of automated scripts for safe and secure data storage, efficient data processing using computational pipelines, and intuitive collaboration between labs. However, before data actually conforms with the a prioridefined syntax and semantics, data needs to be manually transferred and rearranged in an unstructured and insecure fashion across different systems and air-bridged devices, such as an MRI scanner, lab bench, and online questionnaire servers (Figure 1A). Typical solutions for this problem are (a) relying that all lab members are able to responsibly organize their data independently (the hoping for the bestapproach), (b) all data is handed over to one or a few data science experts who are responsible for data management and assessment (the hoping that they will never leave the labapproach), and (c) hybrid approaches where data experts define strict policies on how to organize the data and expect all members (including those with different project requirements) to follow these guidelines (the creating lots of frustration on both sidesapproach). To a different degree, all of these options entail problems such as potential data loss, hard to manage data security and backup strategies, and storage policies that are too inflexible to be applicable for all types of studies. In interdisciplinary teams, it cannot be expected that the required data management skills and coding competences are present in all lab members. This applies in particular for, e.g., the new lab member with a background in molecular psychiatry or the neurophenomenology full professor who cannot be expected to run obscure bash scripts on the lab server to monitor the project’s progress. This was the motivation for developing sweetDatathat provides a user-friendly, efficient, modular, and open framework for management of raw source data. 

Methods. sweetData is being developed in JavaScript using Node.js (v8.11.1, Node.js Foundation) featuring a server module based on Express.js (v4.16.4) and a customizable front-end implemented in Vue.js (v2.5.17) with HTML/CSS. sweetData’s server component is a stand-alone webserver responsible for validating the project’s files and folder structure and reporting its status (Figure 1B). The sweetData client (or any other client application, Figure 2A) can access the server-sided service via an API, allowing for a scalable, flexible, and future-proof architecture. The project semantics, i.e., the way files should be organized within a project, are defined using a customizable JSON file (Figure 2B/C).

Results. Currently, sweetData supports the management of text, DICOM, and NIFTI files. A development snapshot of sweetData is provided online (http://www.sweetneuron.at/wp/sweetdata/) and collaboration in this project, in particular to add new data formats (e.g., EEG data, MAT files) is highly encouraged.

Conclusions. With an ever-increasing number of files and heterogeneous data sources, robust and practicable solutions for project data management are highly relevant. Standardized fMRI reporting formats and international collaborations require the use of structuralized and reproducible forms of data management. While software exists for validating if a project conforms to BIDS, a more general form of data validation to customized schemas optimized for source data has been missing. sweetData can provide an interface to enable translating heterogenous forms of source data into a self-defined, well-ordered, structured project format. Finally, these datasets can be converted to other standardized data management schemas.

Figure 1A. sweetData workflow.Typically, source data is manually collected (e.g., via USB drives) from heterogeneous data sources. Then, data can be ordered and validated using sweetData. If successfully validated, this data can be converted easily to other data organization formats, such as BIDS, using re-usable scripts. B. sweetData architecture.sweetData can run within a modern web browser or as an electron stand-alone application. Modularity of user interface, client logic, server, and data storage allow for distributed implementations, if needed. The client software requests information, such as a representation of the project’s file/object tree, via the server’s API. The result is delivered as a JSON object that can be parsed by the client.

Figure 2A. sweetData user interface. The user interface is implemented in JavaScript, Vue.js framework, HTML, and CSS and can be easily adapted to new use cases, such as displaying new data formats. Identified entities and validation errors (e.g., missing folder, filesize to small), warnings (e.g., missing optional entity) or notes (e.g., unknown/unnecessary file) are highlighted in the project tree. B Example project config file.A JSON file is used to store the relationships of different entities within a project. In this example, it is assumed that a project rootcontains at least one Subject(e.g., a folder named clamy17-e01), which must contain the folders OpenNFT,MRIDRIN, and LogsMRI, in turn, contains different types of NIFTI files, which have a minimum file size and a minimum number of volumes.C Graph of the relationships described in the JSON file.


Gorgolewski, K.J., Alfaro-Almagro, F., Auer, T., Bellec, P., Capota, M., Chakravarty, M.M., Churchill, N.W., Cohen, A.L., Craddock, R.C., Devenyi, G.A., Eklund, A., Esteban, O., Flandin, G., Ghosh, S.S., Guntupalli, J.S., Jenkinson, M., Keshavan, A., Kiar, G., Liem, F., Raamana, P.R., Raffelt, D., Steele, C.J., Quirion, P.O., Smith, R.E., Strother, S.C., Varoquaux, G., Wang, Y., Yarkoni, T., Poldrack, R.A., 2017. BIDS apps: Improving ease of use, accessibility, and reproducibility of neuroimaging data analysis methods. PLoS Comput Biol 13, e1005209.

Poldrack, R.A., Barch, D.M., Mitchell, J.P., Wager, T.D., Wagner, A.D., Devlin, J.T., Cumba, C., Koyejo, O., Milham, M.P., 2013. Toward open sharing of task-based fMRI data: the OpenfMRI project. Front Neuroinform 7, 12.

Can cocaine users self-regulate their dopaminergic reward circuit using neurofeedback?

We found evidence that people can upregulate their dopaminergic reward circuit using mental imagery. This works even better when they receive fMRI neurofeedback of their substantia nigra brain region. Interestingly, this also appears to work in cocaine users – at least in those without strong obsessive-compulsive drug use.

Like we showed in our study on the Aha!-moment, mentally generated feelings of reward can activate brain areas that produce dopamine. Could neurofeedback be a new form of self-guided cognitive brain stimulation?

Self-regulation of the dopaminergic reward circuit in cocaine users with mental imagery and neurofeedback. Matthias Kirschner, Ronald Sladky, Amelie Haugg, Philipp Stämpfli, Elisabeth Jehli, Martina Hodel, Etna Engeli, Sarah Hösli, Markus R Baumgartner, James Sulzer, Quentin J M Huys, Erich Seifritz, Boris B Quednow, Frank Scharnowski, Marcus Herdener. https://www.thelancet.com/journals/ebiom/article/PIIS2352-3964(18)30472-9/fulltext

OpenNFT: a real-time fMRI neurofeedback software

I am actively contributing to a project by Yury Koush (MRRC, Yale University) together with John Ashburner and Peter Zeidman (Functional Imaging Laboratory, University College London), Frank Scharnowski (University of Zurich), Dimitri Van De Ville (EPFL Geneva), Evgeny Prilepin, Sergei Bibikov and Artem Nikonorov (Samara State Aerospace University).

OpenNFT is an open-source framework for neurofeedback training based on real-time fMRI.

Check out our project website for additional details and to download the software: http://opennft.org

Chair elect for Interdisciplinary College 2018

I am happy (and extremely proud) that Prof. Ipke Wachsmuth (left, Professor (emerit.) for Artificial Intelligence, Bielefeld University), me (and Lea, who attended IK for the second time), and Dr. Katharina Krämer (right, Psychologist, University of Cologne) will be given the opportunity to chair the next Interdisciplinary College.

Our Focus theme will be: Me, my Self and I. Who am I? Where is my self? What is it like to be ‘me’? We now have started working on an interdisciplinary course program that covers different aspects of self models, self perception, and selfhood.