Program overview

The Program is organized into a single training curriculum but is characterized by the significant interdisciplinary nature of its approach. It integrates basic training in neuroscience and experimental psychology with studying mental activities and cognitive functions in the psychophysiological, neurobiological, neuropsychological, psycholinguistic, computational, social, philosophical, logical, ethical and educational fields. 

Furthermore, in line with the multidisciplinary nature of the IMT School for Advanced Studies Lucca, the Ph.D. Program promotes the study of the psychophysiological correlates of cognitive functions and human behavior with particular attention to questions of a transversal, translational and clinical nature. Recently, in the context of a dialogue with the economic, social, engineering and humanities sciences, the introduction of neuroscientific methodologies and themes has led to a greater valorization of the experimental approach and an innovative characterization of the neurobiological correlates of human behavior, integrated with social, computational and data analytics aspects. The didactic and experimental organization of the Ph.D. program has been built and revised over the years precisely to adopt this multidisciplinary approach, aiming to offer a broad educational overview, fundamental in the field of modern neuroscience both for pursuing an academic and experimental research career, and for open up to new labor markets that increasingly require transversal figures.

The central teaching and research topics within the Program concern perception through the sense organs, cognitive functions, the study of emotions and social interactions, the sleep-wake cycle, language and conceptual representation. On this basis, the Program opens up to advanced methods of processing electrophysiological and neuroimaging data, the study of the psychophysiological correlates of decision-making processes in the economic and social fields, the application of neurosciences in forensic and juridical areas, the study of the cognitive aspects of the visual arts, to the translational applications of neuroscience in the bioengineering and neurorehabilitation fields. In this way, the Program intends to address current problems and challenges of great social and strategic importance and solid relevance in a long-term perspective.

To this end, the Program promotes a strong integration of concepts, analytical techniques and methodological skills from other disciplinary sectors to provide students with complete mastery of the most advanced analytical tools, aiming to train the new generation of researchers who face the complexity of mental functions and human behavior with specific skills of analysis and interpretation combined with complementary and integrated tools.

In the first year, students will attend multiple courses. After completing the required courses in the curriculum, students engage in their research under the guidance of the faculty members from one of the research groups.

All students are encouraged to spend part of their studies abroad, both within the Erasmus+ framework and through ad hoc mobility agreements.

Teaching is mostly carried out by members of the MOMILAB research unit, with significant 'contaminations' from members of AXES, NETWORKS, SYSMA and LYNX

Courses

The planned courses for the year 2024/2025 will be organized in seven modules:


A detailed list of the courses is available here.

Research Infrastructures

The students will have access to the Open Lab (equipped for EEG, psychophysics and psychophysiology recording),  to the research infrastructures of the joint laboratory with the Neuroscience Lab (the conjoint research lab with Innovation Center Intesa Sanpaolo) and to the OpenLab of the "Economic Resilience" Project and Digital” (RED) of the Department of Excellence present at the School, at the CRONONC-Lab Laboratory (integrated CRONObiology and NeuroCardiology) for research on sleep, wakefulness and their reciprocal interactions (equipped for polysomnographic measurements at the 'Gabriele Monasterio' Tuscan Foundation of Pisa) and to external MRI structures (1.5T, 3T and 7T scanners available in Pisa and Massa at the 'Gabriele Monasterio' Tuscany Foundation and the IRCCS Stella Maris Pisa Foundation).

Ph.D. students will also have the opportunity to be involved in collaborative research programs with national and international institutions, including - among others - University of Pisa, Fondazione Toscana ‘Gabriele Monasterio’ in Pisa, Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna in Pisa, University of Siena, University of Pavia, Department of Philosophy at the University of Milan, Department of Psychology of the University of Turin, University of Padua, the CIMeC – Center for Mind/Brain Sciences University of Trento, University of Virginia, Center for Consciousness and Sleep at the University of Wisconsin, Institute of Psychology & Institute of Neuroscience - University of Louvain, Massachusetts Eye & Ear of the Harvard Medical School.

Profile proposals

Descriptions of current profiles/examples of proposals that could be of interest (but not limited) to the CCSN program:

Social and affective neuroscience: behavioral and brain correlates of emotion, theory of mind and empathy

Abstract:  Social cognition represents the cornerstone of successful human interactions: any social contact requires one's ability to observe people's behavior, infer their cognitive or affective state and predict their actions. Despite decades of psychological research, the mechanisms underlying such complex mental faculties are still far to be fully understood. Recently, data-driven approaches and computational models provided novel insights in this regard: cognitive and affective social abilities are now studied through the recording of real-time subjective reports and accurate monitoring of peripheral activity (e.g., skin conductance, pupil size). Also, neuroimaging techniques are used in combination with naturalistic stimulation (e.g., movies, narratives) to assess how the brain represents the nature and content of social interactions in situations akin to real life. Research activities conducted in the Social and Affective Neuroscience (SANe) Group combine the collection of behavioral data (both deep phenotyping and crowd-sourcing approaches) with natural language processing, psychophysics, graph analysis and neuroimaging methods to build reliable descriptions of human social and affective abilities. Current projects include:

 

Key words: social cognition, emotion, affect, theory of mind, empathy, MRI, fMRI

 

References


Reference person: Luca Cecchetti, SANe - MoMiLab

Interacting with the external world: from sensory-based percept to sensory-independent representations

Abstract: How do we see, interpret, make sense and represent the external world? Perception and mental processing are fundamental to understanding how knowledge is cognitively and neurally represented and organized. Furthermore, to what extent do low-level sensory-based information and high-level abstract features contribute to the organization of conceptual knowledge? The study of (the lack of) sensory experience provided our group with a unique tool to understand to what extent a specific modality is truly a mandatory prerequisite for the brain's morphological and functional architecture to develop and function.

This topic has always been of major interest at MoMiLab. Research activities exploit advanced tools in cognitive neuroscience to characterize the neural correlates of perception and content-specific mental representations, semantic processing and knowledge organization, and action representation. Current projects are relative to:


Methods of investigation: behavioral, f/MRI, EEG and psychophysics

 

Keywords: mental representation, knowledge organization, supramodality, sensory processing

 

References



Reference people: Emiliano Ricciardi, Davide Bottari, Giacomo Handjaras, Pietro Pietrini - SEED/SEMper- MoMiLab

Sensory experience dependence and plasticity

Abstract: Much of what we observe in the adult brain reflects how neural circuitries have been sculpted by experience along the life cycle. A powerful way to investigate the impact of experience on the functional and structural organization of the brain is provided by sensory deprivation models. By perturbing the availability of sensory input, for instance adopting (1) permanent sensory deprivation (e.g., deafness or blindness), (2) sensory re-afferentation after a period of deprivation (vision: individuals treated for congenital bilateral cataracts; audition:  cochlear implanted individuals) or (3) short-lasting deprivation in the adult (e.g., blindfolding), as models of investigation, we can understand the degree of plasticity of sensory systems and of their interactions. Developmental and multisensory perspectives are adopted.

Related topics:

Methods of investigation include: EEG, Computational Neuroscience, fMRI and psychophysics

 

Keywords: experience dependence, sensory deprivation and restoration, neural plasticity, development, sensory interplay

 

References

 

Reference people: Davide Bottari, Emiliano Ricciardi, Pietro Pietrini, SEED/ SEMper - MoMiLab

Sleep, plasticity and conscious experience

Abstract: Sleep and wakefulness have traditionally been considered two global, mutually exclusive states. However, this view has been challenged by the discovery that sleep and wakefulness are locally regulated and that islands of these two states may often coexist in the brain. Importantly, the local regulation of sleep seems to be key for many of the known functions of this physiological state, including the maintenance of brain functional efficiency, the consolidation or stabilization of new memories, and the modulation of mood and emotional reactivity. Local changes in brain activity during sleep may also explain the emergence of conscious experiences (dreams) and may modulate the level of sensory disconnection essential for restorative sleep. On the other hand, during wakefulness, the reiterated activation of specific brain areas leads to a state of ‘functional fatigue,’ characterized by the occurrence of local, sleep-like episodes. These events may have significant consequences for behavior and cognition and may contribute to explaining the known effects of sleep deprivation. Given these premises, alterations in the local regulation of sleep and wakefulness may represent the pathophysiological substrate of symptoms observed in many sleep disorders and some psychiatric and neurologic disorders.

Topics of interest related to this research field include:

Projects may involve one or more of the following investigation techniques: psychometric questionnaires, behavioral testing, recording of autonomic activity, high-density EEG recordings, functional/structural MRI. Additional research opportunities (e.g., for the study of patients with neurologic, psychiatric or sleep disorders) and methodologies (e.g., combined EEG-fMRI, intracranial EEG recordings) may become available through established national and international collaborations.

 

Keywords: sleep, consciousness, dream, learning, memory, emotion.

 

References


Reference people: Giulio Bernardi, SPACE - MoMiLab

Affective physiology and Interoception

Abstract: Emotions and affective reactions are not purely psychological phenomena but are also embodied experiences, accompanied by physiological changes throughout the body. These responses, such as changes in heart rate, skin conductance and temperature, provide valuable clues about the emotional states of individuals and can significantly influence our subjective experiences and behavioral responses. The mechanisms underlying these complex interactions between the mind and body in shaping affective experiences are still to be elucidated. Studying the autonomous nervous system activity, physiological signals and interoception is essential for unraveling these complexities and gaining deeper insights into the nature of affective life. Research activities conducted in the Affective Physiology and Interoception (API) Group integrate behavioral data collection with psychophysiological measures to push the boundaries of knowledge in this field. 

Topics of interest related to this research field include:

 

Keywords: interoception, bodily representation, psychophysiology, affect

 

References


Reference people: Giada Lettieri,  API - MoMiLab

Models, Inference, and Decisions

Abstract: Recent research in cognitive and behavioral sciences is increasingly illuminating the basic mechanisms of human reasoning and cognition, as well as their limitations and systematic deviations from normative theories of rational inference and decision-making. It also raises interesting questions concerning the foundations and methods of different scientific disciplines, and the analysis of scientific reasoning in general.

This research line puts together theoretical and formal models of inference and decision-making with empirical approaches to the study of human reasoning and cognition. The aim is twofold: to better understand, and possibly improve, how people reason and make choices in different contexts, both in ordinary life and in science; and to clarify and strengthen the methodology and foundations of cognitive, behavioral, and social sciences.

Topics of interest for research proposals include:

Keywords: rationality, reasoning, decision-making; philosophy of science, logic, epistemology, critical thinking, scientific method

References

Reference people: Gustavo Cevolani and Folco Panizza, MInD MoMiLab

Other involved research units: AXES (Ennio Bilancini, Giorgio Gnecco), LYNX (Amos Bertolacci, Silvia Di Vincenzo)

Neuroimaging and computational neuroscience in autism

Applicants must have a Laurea Magistrale (or equivalent Master’s Degree) in Psychology, Neuroscience, Computer Science, Medicine, or related disciplines. Applicants must be interested in learning advanced statistical methods for brain image analysis and signal processing. Good knowledge of MATLAB, Python, or R is expected but not essential.

Neuroimaging investigations with resting-state fMRI connectivity mapping have consistently shown patterns of atypical interareal communication in autism. Importantly, those patterns have been found to be highly variable across individuals with the condition. These observations have spurred the question of whether functional connectivity can be used as a meaningful dimension to measure inter-individual variability in autism. However, the absence of tasks has prevented an unambiguous interpretation of atypical functional connectivity in autism measured in resting state. In this project, we will combine advanced image processing methods and a novel research paradigm known as naturalistic stimulation to unravel the intricate neuroconnectional architecture of autism. The analysis of BOLD signals evoked by multisensory and feature-rich stimuli will allow for the examination of brain connectivity in autism with unprecedented sensory/cognitive relevance. Our investigational framework will shed light on the unique and shared neuroconnectional variations across typical and atypical developing populations.

Prospective applicants are invited to contact Marco Pagani (marco.pagani@imtlucca.it) for informal inquiries on the position and selection process.


Understanding the Social Brain: implications for Forensic Psychiatry and the Law

Abstract: Understanding human behavior has been a matter of speculation since the ancient Greek philosophers. The recent discoveries acquired by behavioral genetics, brain imaging and cognitive neuroscience have provided a novel and exciting ground for the investigation of the neurobiological correlates of social behavior and its deviance, with implications that fall well beyond neuroscience and reach out to ethics, philosophy, psychiatry and even to the law. 

Over the last twenty-five years, scientists at MoMILab have focused on the investigation of the genetics, biological, cognitive and brain correlates of human behavior by studying the distinct components of social and antisocial acting. 

How does the brain modulate aggressive and impulsive behavior? Do genes affect our moral choices? Why do we forgive others? How do nature and nurture relate in shaping the individual personality and in favoring pro-social vs anti-social behavior? To what extent are criminals Bad or Mad? How do laypeople and experts reason about morality and assess right and wrong behavior? These are among the main questions that we pursue by combining state-of-the-art molecular biology techniques with experimental psychology, theoretical philosophy and brain structural and functional brain imaging methodologies. 

The ultimate aim of this research is to achieve a neurobiologically based definition of imputability, that is, to provide an objective measurement of the ability to intend and to will, which are the fundamental pillars required by the Law (Penal Codes) for one to be considered responsible for their own actions. Within the forensic psychiatric settings, often expert evaluations are still highly subjective and speculative and thus they fail to provide the Court with conclusive reports that can be evaluated on objective data. Moreover, forensic experts and other professionals involved in the trial (including judges, jurors, and attorneys) can fall prey to cognitive biases, so developing sound heuristics and debiasing strategies is crucial to improve legal reasoning and decision making. We intend to integrate methods from neuroscience and cognitive science with theoretical models from normative theories of rationality to contribute to radically change forensic evaluations.


Candidates accepted to the Ph.D. program will have an opportunity to work in a multidisciplinary environment including neuroscientists, psychiatrists, philosophers, molecular biologists, psychologists, economists and law experts. Candidates also will have the opportunity to conduct first-hand examinations of criminal defendants, collaborate in the writing of expert reports and participate in expert discussions in Court (excellent knowledge of Italian language is required except for the international cases). Depending on the individual background and interest, candidates will work on behavioral molecular genetics research projects or in experimental cognitive/brain imaging studies or on imputability conceptual projects. Candidates will have the opportunity of spending time in collaborating labs, including the Clinical Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Lab at the University of Pisa (Prof. Silvia Pellegrini), the Psychology Department at the University of Padua (Proff. Giuseppe Sartori and Cristina Scarpazza) the Dept. of Psychology at the  University of New Mexico, USA (Prof. Kent Kiehl). 


Key words: forensic neuroscience, human behavior, (anti)sociality, imputability, law

 



References

 

Reference persons: Pietro Pietrini and Gustavo Cevolani - MoMiLab

Computational modeling of the fine-grained functional architecture of the brain: Individual differences across the lifespan

Abstract: Information processing is represented in population responses that can be studied as distributed, fine-grained patterns of activity that can be measured with fMRI.  Changes in the representational geometry of these population responses along processing pathways provide a window for studying how information is transformed by processing.  Fine-grained patterns of activity and connectivity, however, are idiosyncratic.  We have developed a computational model, hyperalignment, that affords the study of individual differences in the information that is embedded in these idiosyncratic topographies.  In this project, we will use fMRI with naturalistic stimulation to study how fine-grained functional brain architecture changes with aging and, in particular, how these changes are related to cognitive function and cognitive inefficiency associated with minimal cognitive impairment, which can be a precursor for dementia.  Sensitive detection of biomarkers for early cognitive decline could have important implications for early intervention in progressive neurodegenerative disease.  The research activity will include fMRI with naturalistic stimuli and computational cognitive neuroscience, as well as analyses of large public data sets. 


Keywords:  fMRI, multivariate pattern analysis, hyperalignment, aging, mild cognitive impairment


References


Reference people:  James Haxby (Dartmouth University), Maria Ida Gobbini (University of Bologna)


Combined EEG-fMRI data analysis for the study of cortico-subcortical interactions during wakefulness and sleep

Abstract: Electroencephalography (EEG) measures spontaneous brain electrical activity propagating to the scalp and allows us to study neural events with a time resolution in the order of milliseconds. EEG is widely used in neuroscience and represents the most common tool in basic and clinical sleep research. Indeed, the transition between different vigilance states has been traditionally defined on the basis of EEG spectral rhythms and specific EEG waveforms (i.e., slow waves, spindles, saw-tooth waves, etc.…). Unfortunately, due to volume conduction, EEG offers a poor spatial resolution and does not allow us to accurately describe changes in the activity of subcortical and deep cortical structures. While approaches based on spatial filtering and source-localization may lead to improved spatial resolution, investigating how cortical and subcortical structures interact and contribute to the establishment of physiological sleep rhythms is practically unfeasible with scalp EEG alone.The simultaneous recording of EEG and fMRI data allows us to combine the high spatial resolution of fMRI with the excellent temporal resolution of EEG. However, the adoption of such a combined approach poses several technical and methodological issues. First, the experimental setting needs to be opportunely designed considering that prolonged scanning sessions impair fMRI data quality while acoustic noise and subject discomfort strongly reduce the probability of achieving continuous and/or deep sleep. Moreover, the fMRI environment alters the EEG signals by introducing several important artifacts. The implementation of specific pre-processing strategies is thus fundamental for the effective use of combined EEG-fMRI. Finally, an interpretable integration of electric and hemodynamic signals, arising from different origins and lying in completely different temporal and spatial scales, requires important methodological care and consideration. Yet, overcoming the above limitations through the improvement of existing tools and/or the development of new methodological approaches will offer novel opportunities for the study of sleep physiology and its alteration in pathological conditions.

Keywords: EEG, fMRI, peripheral biosignals, method development, sleep.

References:

Reference people: Monica Betta, Giacomo Handjaras, MABA – MoMiLab, Giulio Bernardi SPACE-Momilab