Social and Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory



Cognitive neuroscience is the study of how neural substrates (brain regions, networks, and neuronal populations) process distinct cognitive functions such as attention, memory, learning, perception, executive functions, decision making, thinking, language and consciousness. This field has its origin in cognitive psychology, which has consistently developed empirical models of the mechanisms and concepts involved in processing information from both the external environment and internal sources. However, although mental processes have long been linked to the activity of the nervous system through neurophysiological studies conducted in animals, the technical limitations of the time did not allow researchers to document in vivo the neuroanatomy and neurophysiology of healthy human subjects. As such most of the early advances in cognitive neuroscience came through the study of victims of brain damage or postmortem analysis of brain structure. The cognitive revolution culminated in the expansion of neuroscience within the last 40 years, due to the development of non-invasive brain imaging techniques (such as high-resolution EEG, fMRI and PET), which allowed researchers to more directly analyze brain activity in healthy living subjects without the need for surgical procedures. Since then, results from cognitive neuroscience to understand the role of various areas of the brain in cognitive and behavioral functions. 

The SCN lab utilizes several methods and techniques from areas in cognitive neuroscience such as memory (ex. object recognition tasks), attention (ex. the Attention Network Task), visual perception (ex. eye tracking, psychophysics), executive functions (ex. Stroop task, inhibitory control on food/tobacco craving) and multisensory integration (ex. rubber hand illusion, McGurk effect).

As one of the oldest and most widely-discussed topics of philosophical and scientific study in human history; morality is typically seen to be the foundation of social life, and as the set of structures or foundations that underpin our social interactions. In other words, morality is nothing less than the set of social, emotional and cognitive processes that govern our social life. In everyday social life, we use common colloquial terms such as "values", "virtues" and "character" to refer to this underlying set of processes. Over the past decades, theoretical and experimental contributions from cognitive neuroscience have allowed morality and moral concepts to be studied from the perspective of the brain, leading to insights important for related areas in social psychology, anthropology, political science and ethics philosophy. The Social and Cognitive Neuroscience laboratory currently conducts research on the response and evaluation of moral violations; variations in moral judgment according to different social groups; moral development; transcultural variations in moral judgments; and the influence of basic and complex emotions on moral judgment. In addition, our group has recently completed (but not yet published) the translation, adaptation and validation of the Moral Foundations Vignettes (Clifford et al., 2015) for participants from the city of São Paulo.

If you are interested in participating in some of the research mentioned above and/or participate in future studies conducted at our lab, please click here.

Neuroaesthetics is a relatively recent field which studies the biological bases underlying aesthetic experiences. Such experiences may include the evaluation of facial attractiveness, the appraisal of paintings, sculptures and other works of art, and complex emotional reactions to beauty, either in the natural environment or to manmade structures. Contributions to the study of neuroaesthetics are wide-ranging, drawing from such dispersed disciplines as visual perception, art theory and emotion, and hold important insights for more established areas of study in attention, face recognition and cognitive ergonomics. The Social and Cognitive Neuroscience lab is one of three leading research hubs forming the Centre for Applied Research in Human Well-being and Behaviour, a private-public partnership between Natura Cosmetics and the São Paulo Research Foundation (FAPESP). Research conducted as part of the Centre focuses on the investigation of the effect of cosmetic enhancement on perceived facial attractiveness, emotional response and social evaluation of ingroup/outgroup faces.  

Clinical neuroscience is concerned with the study of individuals with neural dysfunctions and/or associated cognitive or behavioral impairments. Some of the key themes in clinical neuroscience include the investigation of the neurobiological basis of specific disorders, the effect of neural changes on abnormal behavior and cognition, and how to design effective interventions for the treatment of disorders with a basis in the central nervous system. Research in this area often overlaps with related fields in cognitive neuroscience and perception, as well as medical disciplines such as psychiatry and neurology. The research stream in clinical neuroscience at the Social and Cognitive Neuroscience lab primarily investigates clinical disorders such as autism spectrum disorder (ASD), schizophrenia, and chronic pain; and currently employs a wide range of techniques such as high-density electroencephalography (EEG), eye tracking and automatic face recognition, functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS), electrocardiography (ECG) and transcranial direct current (tDCS) stimulation.

Autism or ASD is a developmental disorder associated with a variety of behavioral and cognitive deficits. Research conducted at the SCN lab aims to further understand the underlying cognitive processes involved in ASD, such as semantic object processing, facial expression recognition, and speech prosody, as well as the role of maternal interaction in these processes. Other aspects of autism are also studied, such as how false memories are processed through the analysis of ERP components using EEG, and how social cognition and internal body representation are affected through fNIRS imaging during the rubber hand illusion, and through modulation with the oxytocin hormone. These last aspects allow us to better understand the neurobiological mechanisms of multisensory integration in autism, and how brain networks related to the perception of one’s own body overlap with those related to perception of another’s body.

Schizophrenia is a chronic psychological disorder characterized by disorganized speech and behavior, as well as changes in social cognition and emotional expression. It is also frequently associated with difficulties in maintaining attention and memorization. The SCN laboratory primarily uses techniques such as eye tracking and EEG to test the underlying cognitive deficits in schizophrenia, such as differences in the analysis of eye movements in faces and visual scenes, the recognition of emotional facial expressions, and the online monitoring of visual attention. Other disorders related to addiction and impulsivity are also the subject of research to determine how the control of craving and compulsion are related to neurobiological alterations in brain networks for reward, stress and executive control.

Chronic pain, as observed in conditions such as fibromyalgia, continues to be a common source of discomfort for many individuals, while its underlying causes are still poorly-understood. Given this context, the SCN lab conducts studies with the aim of understanding interconnections between brain areas that subserve the neuronal pain network, and how areas functionally associated with multisensory integration, body perception and affective response influence the persistence of pain perception and empathy to pain in typically-developing individuals, as well as in individuals with chronic fibromyalgic pain.