Behavioural Neuroscience

Welcome to the website of the Behavioural Neuroscience research group. We are one of the four research groups within the Department of Animal in Science and Society at the Department of Population Health Sciences, Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, University of Utrecht. Our team investigates how early life experiences, particularly play, contribute to the development of the brain, behavioiur, and well-being of both humans and animals.

About us

We are fascinated by behaviour, particularly (social) play behaviour. We aim to comprehend not only how healthy behaviours develop but also how vulnerability to, or resilience against, behavioural problems arises. Our team primarily examines the role of play behaviour at a young age in the development of the brain and the emergence of emotional, social, and cognitive behaviours. We conduct laboratory research for this purpose, but we are increasingly expanding our research to include play in children and in domestic animals, such as calves. Additionally, we collaborate extensively with other research groups and actively participate in the strategic theme 'Dynamics of Youth' at the University of Utrecht.

What we do

In our lab, we are dedicated to understanding how healthy behaviour as well as vulnerability to or resilience against behavioural problems are established. We investigate the role of (risky) play in the development of cognitive control over behaviour in later life (Research: Risky Play), the neurobiological mechanisms of play behaviour (Neurobiology of Social Play), and the impact of age on the development of addictive behaviours (Research: Aging Matters). Additionally, we are running smaller research projects where we systematically examine children's play behaviour (Research: LEGO play) and explore improved housing for laboratory animals (Research: EC4Rats). Our research involves the use of observation techniques, (intracranial) pharmacology, and operant tasks.

Group members

  • I am Heidi Lesscher, Associate Professor and PI of the Neurobiology of Behavior research group. I am fascinated by the individual variation in susceptibility to mental health problems, which often arise at a young age. My ambition is, together with my team, to better understand and prevent the development of behavioural problems, and thereby contribute to the well-being of humans and animals.
  • My research focusses on the neurobiology of social play behavior, mainly in rats. I investigate the brain regions and neurotransmitter systems involved in the expression of and motivation for social play behavior and compare the similarities and differences to other types of rewards such as food and drugs of abuse. In addition, I assess play behaviour in both healthy individuals as in models of neurodevelopmental impairments. Recently, I also started to investigate ultrasonic vocalization emission during several behavioural paradigms, including during social play.
  • J.M. (Anne-Marie) Baars

    Research and Education Assistant
  • J.G. (José) Lozeman-van t Klooster

    Research and Education Assistant
  • A. (Emel) Souiki

    PhD Candidate
  • In my project, I study the impact of play during the juvenile period of rats on the development of cognitive control and stress resilience later in life. I am particularly interested in the risks taken during play, and how these risky experiences shape decision-making in conflict situations and resilience against the unexpected. Furthermore, I delineate the role of the medial prefrontal cortex and its projections to the nucleus accumbens in these processes.
  • As a PhD candidate, I investigate the age-related effects of alcohol and cannabis addiction, comparing adolescents with adults. Adolescents have more risk to develop an addiction. However, after experiencing negative consequences they seem to get control over their addictive behaviour. By fundamental investigation of addictive behaviour and the neurobiological development we hope to gain more understanding of this risk and resilience during this age.


Daphne van Hal     I am a HBO Bachelor's student of Animal Management at Van Hall Larenstein in Leeuwarden. I am working on the project of the new housing for Laboratory rats together with Paula Kaper. In this project we evaluate what the influence of the new housing is on social play behaviour and motivation. We also look at the logistic aspect of the new cages.

Paula Kaper     I am a bachelor student in life sciences. Together with Daphne van Hal, I’m working on a project involving a new type of housing for laboratory rats. We are examining the potential effects that the new housing may have on social play behaviour and motivation in rats. Effects that may be important to the standardization of an experimental setup and construct validity, when using social play and/or motivation of rats as a model. During this study, we are also examining the practical aspects and logistics the new housing brings. After all, using the new type of housing should be ergonomic for people who would work with, or take care of rats regularly.

Nikki Markus     I am a bachelor student, currently in my fourth year of the bachelor Psychology. In the lab, I am involved in the Play Project, with Dr. Marijke Achterberg. I am writing my thesis on positive emotional contagion in juvenile rats, where I specifically assess whether social play in rats is a useful inducer of emotional contagion. After finishing my bachelor, I am hoping to start the Master Neuroscience and Cognition at UU, since I am very interested in neuroscience and would like to pursue a career in the field.

Carmen Peters     My name is Carmen Peters and I am 22 years old. To finalize my Bachelor’s programme Farmacie: College of Pharmaceutical Sciences, I am now doing my research internship at the Behavioural Neuroscience research group. I am involved in the project on the effects of play deprivation on the behavioural and neuroendocrine responses. I am working together with my supervisor dr. Marijke Achterberg.

Linde Veenboer     I have completed my Bachelor's degree in Biology, where I discovered my interest for neurobiology. Currently, I'm doing the master Science and Business management, which starts with a 9-month internship. In this internship, I'm involved in the LEGO-project with Anne-marie Baars and will be working on the project of Sofie van Koppen focussed on the age related effects of alcohol in rats. 

Bram Tollenaar     I am a first year Drug Innovation masters student currently doing my internship supervised by Emel Souiki at the Behavioural Neuroscience group. After doing my CPS bachelor I was interested in psychopharmacology, and animal behavioural studies, With this internship, I can gain experience in working with animals and studying their behaviour for the first time, as I am really interested in studying mental disorders and potential treatments for them in the future.

Anneliek Heuvel     I am a masters student of Applied Cognitive Psychology from the faculty of social behavioural sciences. With a background in neuroscience and psychology, I am deeply curious about the influence of play and time in nature on wellbeing. Currently, I am working together with Dr. Heidi Lesscher and in collaboration with Jantje Beton, on a research project looking at the influence of outdoor play on emotional wellbeing and nature connectedness in children.