The ICoN center research activities are fully integrated with the thematic priorities of the School. Theme 1 (Mind Body Languages) is based on the experimental analysis of the structure and alterations of the neuro-cognitive mechanisms underlying the processes of reasoning, natural and artificial language, decision-making, emotions, and any other aspect of our intellectual and social life in normal and pathological conditions. This research program, whose privileged fields are neurolinguistics, neuroeconomics, neuroethics and clinical and experimental neuropsychology, requires close collaboration with multiple sectors of the humanities and life sciences, made available by internal collaborations within the Class and the IUSS and by numerous contacts with national and international research institutions. Theme 2 (Climate Sustainability Risk) is approached by studies on the neurobiological mechanisms of risk perception, the neurobiological determinants of sustainable behavior and the impact of environmental factors on brain health. Theme 3 (Space Future Data) is at the core of data-driven analysis in cognitive neuroscience and neurosimulation. Programs such as the Human Brain Project and The Virtual Brain clearly demonstrate the priority that these issues have assumed at European and global level in neuroscience research.
The main research lines are:
1. Neuroscience of decision-making
Making decisions, and translate them into actual actions and behaviors, requires a complex balance between motivational drives and inhibitory processes of cognitive control. This balance may be compromised in many neurological or psychiatric pathologies, in which the motivational drive is lacking or, on the contrary, excessive and not counterbalanced by effective inhibitory mechanisms. Investigating the neuro-cognitive bases of decision-making and executive functioning therefore allows to develop models of several disorders characterized by emotional, motivational and impulse control deficits. This research line aims to investigate the neural bases of decision-making through multiple research techniques, ranging from neuroimaging (magnetic resonance imaging and electroencephalography) to neurostimulation (transcranial electrical and magnetic stimulation), with studies involving healthy participants and clinical populations. A further aim is to translate the resulting knowledge into innovative treatments based on neurostimulation techniques.
2. Social and affective neuroscience
Humans’ social nature is closely linked to the ability to understand others’ affective (empathy) and cognitive (mentalizing) states, and to take them into account when making decisions (moral cognition). These processes, jointly known as 'social cognition', recruit complex systems of cortical and subcortical brain areas which might be specifically involved in many neurological and psychiatric pathologies. This research line aims to investigate the neural bases of social cognitive processes through different research techniques, ranging from neuroimaging (magnetic resonance imaging and electroencephalography) to neuro-stimulation (transcranial electrical and magnetic stimulation) with studies involving healthy participants and clinical populations. The resulting knowledge may provide useful indications for developing novel treatments revolving around social cognitive skills, also combined with neurostimulation methods.
3.Motor cognition and action representation
Our everyday experience is based on the ability to move body parts in a coordinated manner to produce complex actions allowing us to interact with the environment. Over and beyond such motor planning skills, engaging in social interaction additionally requires to analyze and interpret the meaning of others' actions, whether observed or mediated by language, and to respond to them with appropriate behavior. These abilities may be impaired in association with pathologies affecting movement control. This line of research aims to investigate the neurophysiological bases of motor cognition and action representation using neuroimaging techniques (magnetic resonance imaging and high-density electroencephalography), neurostimulation (magnetic stimulation) and movement analysis (kinematics). The resulting knowledge is expected to provide useful indications for the development of novel neuro-motor rehabilitation treatments and biomarkers of their effectiveness (e.g. in Parkinson's disease or stroke).
4. Language and semantic cognition
Understanding the functional anatomy of language represents the focus of our research for more than 40 years. The integration of neuropsychological and psycholinguistic studies with the multiple methods of cognitive neuroscience, such as neuroimaging, neurophysiology, neuromodulation and neurocomputation considerably is enriching our understanding of its neural organization. The semantic aspect is a specific focus of interest in this field. Semantic memory contains information about the world (facts), such as words, concepts and numbers, which we have accumulated over the years. The study of patients who have an isolated or relatively isolated disturbance of this central aspect of mental functioning has played a fundamental role in the development of theoretical and practical models of mental functioning and the identification of the neurobiological mechanisms of semantic memory. Several research lines are following the multimodal approach, with a particular emphasis on abstract knowledge and organization, on the neural basis of semantic dysfunctions and on experimental approaches to rehabilitation.
5. Prevention and treatment of disorders of memory and other cognitive functions
The importance of prevention for maintaining brain health is now widely recognized as a central theme of Precision Medicine and is supported by important scientific evidence on the effectiveness of personalized intervention plans based on a comprehensive multidisciplinary assessment. Prevention requires the earliest possible diagnosis of cognitive disorders, based on the application of constantly advancing scientific and technological methods (neuropsychology, neuroimaging, neurophysiology, laboratory investigations) for the identification and validation of pathology biomarkers. Research in this area is carried out through projects for the development of innovative systems for multimodal data analysis based on machine-learning techniques for assessing and monitoring cognitive functioning using computerized tools and user-friendly telemedicine platforms.
6. Multimodal studies of rare dementias
The so-called 'rare' neurodegenerative diseases, which usually have specific genetic bases, include juvenile dementias (e.g., early-onset Alzheimer's disease) and atypical dementias (e.g., primary progressive aphasias and fronto-temporal dementia). The research projects are based on the identification of cognitive-behavioral markers of pathology leading to a precise characterization of the cognitive phenotype to be correlated with biomarker analysis and on the development of experimental rehabilitation approaches. These disorders provide invaluable information about the neural basis of memory, language and social cognition, and are investigated with a multimodal approach, including, in combination with neuropsychology, basic research (genetics, pharmacology, neurochemistry), neurophysiology (high-density electroencephalography, transcranial electrical and magnetic stimulation) and neuroimaging (high-field magnetic resonance imaging).