Michael Smolka, Thomas Goschke (TUD) – Robert Leech (King’s)

Impaired volitional control over one’s actions, thoughts, or emotions as well as an altered interaction of instrumental and Pavlovian learning and control are two key characteristics of addictive as well as affective disorders. However, these mechanisms have been investigated largely segregated from each other and separately in addiction and depression.

To overcome this lack of mechanistic trans-diagnostic models we aim to specify neurocognitive and computational mechanisms underlying dysfunctions of action control in addiction and depression. Based on a neurocognitive process model of self-control, we propose that some behavioural manifestations of both disorders reflect dysfunctional interactions between brain systems involved in salience attribution, motivation, performance-monitoring, and cognitive control, which leads to an insufficient mobilization of cognitive control and an aberrant computation of the value of control.

One PhD project will investigate conflicts between instrumental and Pavlovian control with a Pavlovian-to-Instrumental transfer (PIT) task. In PIT, positively valued Pavlovian cues can promote instrumental responses and approach, while negatively valued Pavlovian cues promote inhibition or withdrawal actions. Evaluative conflict between both systems will be measured at the behavioural (accuracy, vigor) and neural level (fMRI). The aim is to identify characteristics of PIT behaviour in AUD, depression and their interaction, and to delineate the underlying neural signatures.

The other PhD project will focus on cognitive control mechanisms in an already existing cohort. Cognitive control competencies have been measured with a behavioural task battery, EMA was used to assess real-life self-control, and fMRI was used to assess brain activity during tasks and rest. The aim is to test whether depressiveness is associated with deficient performance-monitoring and post-error recruitment of the control network, and whether depressiveness moderates the association between cognitive control competencies and real-life self-control.

At KCL PhD students will analyse fMRI data with respect to connectivity patterns during rest and task performance and explore differences in connectivity related to AUD and depressiveness.


  • Goschke T. Dysfunctions of decision-making and cognitive control as transdiagnostic mechanisms of mental disorders: advances, gaps, and needs in current research. Int J Methods Psychiatr Res. 2014;23 Suppl 1:41–57. doi:10.1002/mpr.1410.
  • Krönke K-M, Wolff M, Mohr H, Kräplin A, Smolka MN, Bühringer G, Goschke T. Monitor yourself! Deficient error-related brain activity predicts real-life self-control failures. Cogn Affect Behav Neurosci. 2018;18:622–37. doi:10.3758/s13415-018-0593-5.
  • Chen H, Nebe S, Mojtahedzadeh N, Kuitunen-Paul S, Garbusow M, […], Smolka M.N. Susceptibility to interference between Pavlovian and instrumental control is associated with early hazardous alcohol use. Addict Biol. 2020:e12983. doi:10.1111/adb.12983.

Skills/qualities required especially for this project:

  • Prior experience and/or strong interest in cognitive neuroscience, experimental paradigms, and brain imaging. Mathematical propensity to acquire cutting edge programming and data analytics skills.
  • Interest in mechanisms of learning and cognitive control and their neural basis, as well as in dysfunctions of these mechanisms in addiction and depression.
  • Strong motivation and commitment to work in an interdisciplinary team at the interface of cognitive and clinical psychology, psychiatry, and cognitive neuroscience.