Social Isolation and its Impact on the Human Brain

-Full Video of the seminar below-

Science in Times of COVID

This cycle of seminars aims at analyzing the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic from different points of view. The world of science influences and is, in turn, itself influenced by various other fields complementary to it.

Within this frame, we have decided to offer IIT Alumni and the entire IIT population with the opportunity to think about aspects that are not directly visible on their daily empiric work, but which are connected to it, with the guidance of top-notch experts in sectors ranging from economics to history.


Never before have we experienced social isolation on such a massive scale as we have in response to coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19).
However, we know that the social environment has a dramatic impact on our sense of life satisfaction and well-being. In times of distress, crisis, or
disaster, human resilience depends on the richness and strength of social connections, as well as on active engagement in groups and communities.
Over recent years, evidence emerging from various disciplines has made it abundantly clear: perceived social isolation (i.e., loneliness) may be the most potent threat to survival and longevity. We highlight the benefits of social bonds, the choreographies of bond creation and maintenance, as well as the neurocognitive basis of social isolation and its deep consequences for mental and physical health.


I have studied medicine between 2006 and 2012 at RWTH Aachen University, Université de Lausanne, and Harvard Medical School, supported by the German National Merit Foundation. In 2010 I entered the world of brain imaging & systems neuroscience working with Simon Eickhoff as part of the International Research Training Group “Schizophrenia and Autism” (DFG-IRTG1328).

By additional affiliation with the Institute of Neuroscience and Medicine 1, Research Center Jülich, I received training in neuroanatomy from Karl Zilles and Katrin Amunts. I defended a doctoral thesis in cognitive neuroscience in December 2012 (“Functional Specialization for Social Processes in the Human Brain”). This work received the Grünenthal prize from my faculty, the Friedrich-Wilhelm prize and the Borchers medal from my university, as well as the Hans-Heimann prize from the German Society of Psychiatry.

From 2013 to 2015 I then pursued a PhD in computer science on machine learning working with Bertrand Thirion, Olivier Grisel, and Gaël Varoquaux at INRIA Saclay & Neurospin near Paris and Heinrich-Heine University Düsseldorf (“Statistical Learning of Biological Structure in Human Brain Imaging”), supported by a full PhD scholarship of the German National Merit Foundation. From September 2015, I headed the section for “Social and Affective Neuroscience” at the Department of Psychiatry, RWTH Aachen University, as an Assistant Professor and I am a principal investigator in the international DFG-IRTG2150 closely collaborating with the University of Pennsylvania, USA. I was named “Rising Star” by the Association for Psychological Science (APS) in 2017 and selected as “Rising Star Scientist” by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in 2018.

Since 2019, I serve as Associate Professor at the Department of Biomedical Engineering at McGill’s Faculty of Medicine and as Canada CIFAR AI Chair at Mila – Quebec Artificial Intelligence Institute, Montreal, Canada, including cross-appointments at the McConnell Brain Imaging Centre, Montreal Neurological Institute (MNI), Ludmer Centre for Neuroinformatics and Mental Health, and the School of Computer Science at McGill University.

My combination of backgrounds allows identifying pressing questions in medical imaging and health, reframing them as statistical learning problems, and translating new insight into biomedicine. My research team is focused on data-guided analysis techniques for large datasets from a systems neuroscience perspective. I believe that strong interdisciplinarity, with an equal footing in research object and research method, is a prerequisite for forward progress in quantitative neuroscience and personalized medicine.

In my free time, I enjoy French and Italian culture, language and languages, playing chess or Go, and I consume excessive amounts of music.


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