FC01 – Motifs for Neurocognitive Challenges from Individual to Evolutionary Time Scales

Lecturer: Wulf Haubensak
Fields: Circuit neuroscience,  Neurogenetics, Computational neuroanatomy, Evolutionary ethology


Brains are built to avoid threats and seize rewards – the basic behavioral challenges from survival in the wild to navigating complex societies. Here, we explore the underlying neuronal circuit motifs, from individual to evolutionary time scales. We will also discuss how network function is genetically programmed and how dysfunction might lead to psychiatric symptoms. 

Session 1: Neuronal circuit solutions for learning tasks

Individual brains learn and use stimulus-outcome contingencies to optimize responding to behavioral challenges by predicting future events from past experiences and current indicators. If these models are not correct, they are being updated to improve future predictions. Here, wecombine computational and experimental means to explore circuit motifs for predictive coding and behavioral decisions. We will investigate hierarchical cortico-limbic networks that store and recall short-term and long-term memories from emotional experiences. We will also investigate how basic affective circuitries may control more complex temporally and spatially structured behavioral patterns. 

Session 2. Behavioral diversity from neurogenetic traits

Individuals behave differently, because of their life experiences (Session 1) and because of their genetic disposition. The current challenge in the neurosciences is to understand how genetic variation modulates circuit computation and, ultimately, behavioral traits. Data from social interaction experiments will showcase computational and experimental approaches to resolve the principle organization of such functional modules across genetic-, neuronal circuit- and behavioral-levels. Ultimately, this will uncover constraints and freedoms in the functional interrelation between genetic variance and behavioral traits in population and ultimately evolution. 

Session 3. Reconstructing becoming human

Neurogenetic variance does not only bias individual differences at the population level (Session 2), but ultimately shapes neurocognitive adaptation at evolutionary scales.  Tracing neurocognitive evolution typically relies on comparing behavioral or neuroanatomical features in mammalian phylogeny. Here, we will compare classical research to novel approaches that aim to address this problem computationally. Projecting genome-wide selection pressure onto the human brain reference space recreates evolutionary history of human brain function. Such atlases allow imputing functional features to archaic brains from extinct hominin genomes in silico. Here, we will use this data for computational archaeology of the human mind from early hominids to anatomically modern human. In this context, we will initiate an open discussion on human machine interfaces, the future of cognitive enhancement and emotional robots. 


Neuroscience is currently undergoing two revolutions. First, advanced local and global brain network imaging technologies and optogenetics allow to monitor and manipulate neuronal computations underlying specific brain functions in depth and with ever greater precision. Second, genetic initiatives (GWAS studies) and brain mapping projects (gene expression maps, connectomes) create a wealth of data and opportunities to be mined for insights into the genetic to systems level organization of brain function. 

Participants will assemble these technologies to learn about the functional neuroanatomy and genetic control underlying basic behavioral challenges. To this end, we will design workflows integrating behavioral paradigms for cognitive functions and computational analysis, methods for recording and manipulation of neuronal activity, decoding and concepts of neuronal network activity, psychiatric and evolutionary neurogenetics, fusing and exploring brain gene expression, connectomic and functional network data.  



  • Buzsáki G. “Rhythms of the brain.” Oxford University Press (2011).
  • Koch C. “The quest for consciousness.” Roberts and Company Publishers (2004).
  • Seung S. “Connectome: how the brain’s wiring makes us who we are.” Mariner Books (2013) 
  • Wallisch P, Lusignan M, Benayoun M, Baker T, Dickey A. “MATLAB for Neuroscientists,.” Academic Press (2014).


  • Barrett LF, Simmons WK. “Interoceptive predictions in the brain.” Nat. Rev. Neurosci. 16, 419–429 (2015).
  • Bassett DS, Sporns O. “Network neuroscience.” Nat Neurosci 20(3):353-364 (2017). doi: 10.1038/nn.4502. Review.
  • Doya K. “Metalearning and neuromodulation.” Neural Networks 15, 495–506 (2002).
  • Friston K. “Hierarchical models in the brain.” PLoS Comput. Biol. 4, (2008).
  • Ganglberger F, Kaczanowska J, Penninger JM, Hess A, Bühler K, Haubensak W. “Predicting functional neuroanatomical maps from fusing brain networks with genetic information.” Neuroimage. 2018 Apr 15;170:113-120. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2017.08.070. Epub 2017 Sep 4. 
  • Ganglberger F, Swoboda N, Frauenstein L,  Kaczanowska J, Haubensak W, Buehler K. “BrainTrawler: A visual analytics framework for iterative exploration of heterogeneous big brain data.” Computers & Graphics 82 (2019) 304–320. 
  • Griessner J, Pasieka M, Böhm V, Grössl F, Kaczanowska J, Pliota P, Kargl D, Werner B, Kaouane N, Strobelt S, Kreitz S, Anderson DJ, Hess A, Haubensak W. “Central amygdala circuit dynamics underlying the benzodiazepine anxiolytic effect.” Mol Psychiatry. doi.org/10.1038/s41380-018-0310-32018. Epub 2018 Nov 30. 
  • Grillner S. Megascience efforts and the brain. Neuron 82(6):1209-11 (2014).  doi: 10.1016/j.neuron.2014.05.045. Review.
  • Grössl F, Munsch T*, Meis S*, Griessner J, Pliota P, Kargl D, Badurek S,  Kraitsy K, Rassoulpour A, Lessmann V, Haubensak W. “Dorsal tegmental dopamine neurons gate associative learning of fear.” Nat Neurosci. 2018 Jun 27. doi: 10.1038/s41593-018-0174-5. 
  • Josselyn SA, Frankland PW. “Memory Allocation: Mechanisms and Function.” Annu Rev Neurosci 8;41:389-413. D(2018) 
  • Kaczanowska J, Ganglberger F, Galik B, Hess A, Moodley Y, Bühler K, Haubensak W “Molecular archaeology of the human brain.” bioRxiv, 598094. 
  • Koechlin E, Jubault T. “Broca’s Area and the Hierarchical Organization of Human Behavior.” Neuron 50, 963–974 (2006).
  • O’Connell L,  Hofmann HA. “Evolution of a Vertebrate Social Decision-Making Network.” Science (80-. ). 336, 1154–1157 (2012).
  • Pezzulo G, Rigoli F, Friston, KJ.”Hierarchical Active Inference: A Theory of Motivated Control.” Trends in Cognitive Sciences (2018). doi:10.1016/j.tics.2018.01.009
  • Pfaff D, Tabansky I, Haubensak W. “Tinbergen’s challenge for the neuroscience of behavior.” Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2019 Apr 29. pii: 201903589. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1903589116. [Epub ahead of print]. 
  • Pliota P, Böhm V*,  Grössl F*, Griessner J*, Valenti O*, Kaczanowska J, Pasieka M, Lendl T, Deussing JM, Haubensak W. “Stress peptides sensitize fear circuitry to generalize passive coping.” Mol Psychiatry. 2018 Jun 14. doi: 10.1038/s41380-018-0089-2. 
  • Rubenstein DR, Ågren JA, Carbone L, Elde NC, Hoekstra HE, Kapheim KM, Keller L, Moreau CS, Toth AL, Yeaman S, Hofmann HA. “Coevolution of Genome Architecture and Social Behavior.”Trends Ecol Evol. 2019 Sep;34(9):844-855. doi: 10.1016/j.tree.2019.04.011. Epub 2019 May 24. Review.Pignatelli, Michele and Beyeler A. “Valence Coding in Amygdala Circuits.” Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences 26:97–106 (2019). 
  • Seidenbecher T1, Laxmi TR, Stork O, Pape HC. Amygdalar and hippocampal theta rhythm synchronization during fear memory retrieval. Science 301(5634):846-50 (2003). 
  • van den Heuvel MP, Scholtens LH, Kahn RS. „Multiscale Neuroscience of Psychiatric Disorders.” Biol Psychiatry. 86(7):512-522 (2019).  doi: 10.1016/j.biopsych.2019.05.015. Epub (2019) May 28. Review.


Dr. Wulf Haubensak

2019 Speaker “Assembling safe behavior towards objects in space”, Gordon Research Conference on Amygdala Function in Emotion, Cognition and Disease

2017 Symposium chair and speaker “Neuronal architectures for the basic mind”, Austrian Neuroscience Society, Institute for Science and Technology

2016 Steering committee, Vienna Doctoral School “Cognition, Behaviour and Neuroscience (CoBeNe)”

2016 Organizing committee, symposium chair and speaker “Shaping synapses, circuits and behavior with dopamine”, Dopamine 2016

2015 Symposium chair and speaker “Neurobiology of fear and anxiety: genes, circuits and behavior”, 94th Annual Meeting of the German Physiological Society

2015 Meeting organizer “Neural circuit dynamics of behavior and disease” Gumpoldskirchen

2013 Member of the Young Academy of the Austrian Academy of Sciences

2013 ERC Consolidator Grant

2012 Symposium chair and speaker “The mechanics of the emotional brain: dissecting fear and aggression in limbic circuits”, FENS Forum of Neuroscience

2011 Group leader “Circuit mechanics of emotional behavior”, Institute of Molecular Pathology (IMP) Vienna

2003 Postdoctoral research and staff scientist “Genetic dissection of fear circuits”, California Institute of Technology

2005 Otto-Hahn Medal, Max-Planck Society

2004 Postdoctoral fellowship, Human Frontier Science Program Organization

2003 PhD “Neurogenesis in the CNS”, University of Heidelberg

1997 Diploma “BDNF and neuronal plasticity”, University of Bochum

1997 Scholarship, Massenberg Foundation 

1992 Studies in Biochemistry, University of Bochum

Affiliation: IMP Vienna