Cognitive and computational Neuroscience in development psychiatry

We investigate how young individuals learn and make decisions and how this is linked to the function and structure of their brains. On the one hand, we aim to understand the motivation underlying approach and avoidance behaviors and how they can lead to rigid and psychopathological behavioral patterns. On the other hand, we are interested in understanding flexible and goal-directed cognitive control that enables behavioral change.


Childhood and Adolescence are characterized by enormous developmental changes, which initialize learning processes on psychological, biological and social levels. These learning processes shape their cognition, motivation and decision-making. This leads to the emergence behavioral patterns, which can flexibly adjusted in a goal-directed manner. However, if development goes awry, aberrant learning may lead to loss-of-control behavioral patterns such as repeated impulsive behaviors. This may show in hyperactivity and cognitive problems but also anger or substance abuse. ADHD is a prominent example of a disorder in developmental psychiatry.

Research objective

Our research aims to identify neurocognitive developmental trajectories to understand the transdiagnostic emergence of impulsive and compulsive symptoms. Exemplary diagnostic entities in developmental psychiatry are ADHD, substance abuse, excessive and restrictive eating disorders and anxious-compulsive disorders. We are particularly interested in dissociating common and distinct neurocognitive processes underlying these symptom dimensions. Empirical and theoretical insights on the role of the neuromodulator dopamine in reinforcement learning play a central role in our research.


Our research methods range from questionnaires, behavioral experiments (in the lab, online and on the smartphone) to neural measures (functional und structural MRI, EEG, PET) as well as pharmacological manipulations. We use computational models of learning and decision-making (‘reinforcement learning’) for a detailed understanding of neurocognitive processes and to inform the analysis of neural data (‘computational neuroimaging’). These methods are part of the larger agenda of ‘Computational Psychiatry’.


Equipped with these methodological tools, we strive to test the clinical applicability of cognitive and computational neuroscience methods, for example by trying to understand the heterogeneity in treatment responses of our patients to established psychopharmacological agents.


Our research is funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG) und the Federal Ministry for Education and Research (BMBF). We are part of the Collaborative Research Centre TRR 265: Losing and Regaining Control over Drug Intake (Charité Berlin, TU Dresden, ZI Mannheim).

Research Team


Prof. Dr. med. Lorenz Deserno


Dr. med. Hans-Christoph Aster
Dr. phil. Vanessa Scholz
Maria Waltmann
Hilmar Zech

Selected Publications

Reiter A, Heinze HJ, Schlagenhauf F, Deserno L.
Impaired flexible reward-based decision-making in binge eating disorder: evidence from computational modeling and functional Neuroimaging.
Neuropsychopharmacology, 2017
Go to publication

Deserno L, Wilbertz T, Reiter A, Horstmann A, Neumann J, Villringer A, Heinze HJ, Schlagenhauf F.
Lateral prefrontal model-based signatures are reduced in healthy individuals with high trait impulsivity.
Translational Psychiatry, 2015
Go to publication

Deserno L, Huys QJM, Boehme R, Buchert R, Heinze HJ, Grace AA, Dolan R, Heinz A, Schlagenhauf F.
Ventral striatal dopamine reflects behavioral and neural signatures of model-based control during sequential decision making.
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States, 2015
Go to publication

Deserno L, Beck A, Huys QJM, Lorenz RC, Buchert R, Buchholz HG, Plotkin M, Kumakara, Y, Cumming P, Rapp MA, Heinze HJ, Schlagenhauf F, Heinz A
Chronic alcohol intake abolishes the relationship between dopamine synthesis capacity and learning signals in ventral striatum.
European Journal of Neuroscience, 2015
Go to publication

Deserno L, Sterzer P, Wüstenberg T, Heinz A, Schlagenhauf F.
Reduced prefrontal-parietal effective connectivity and working memory in schizophrenia.
Journal of Neuroscience, 2012
Go to publication


Portraitfoto von Prof. Dr. med. Lorenz Deserno

Prof. Dr. med.
Lorenz Deserno

W2-Professur für Experimentelle Neurowissenschaften in der Entwicklungspsychiatrie

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