Senior Researcher Neuroscience at Radboud University
UCU: BSc (Life Sciences)
After UCU: Utrecht University; MSc (Neuroscience)
University College London: PhD (Cognitive Neuroscience)

Becoming a neuroscientist, has that always been your dream? “Well to be honest, no…In high school I was never able to choose what I wanted to do because I liked so many subjects. My father was a physics teacher though, and he certainly did instill a love of science and for trying to find out how things work. When I finished I did know I wanted to do something international and that I would love to go abroad. As a kid, I never really travelled a lot; we used to go to France during the summer holidays and before I came to UCU I had never travelled by airplane! I didn’t even know studying abroad was an option, so I applied for UCU, which seemed the closest to getting abroad I could get, and I could go on studying all sorts of interesting topics. And that’s where I fell in love with neuroscience.

Can you tell us something about your experience at UCU? At the time I started at UCU (in 1999), there were not that many tracks yet. I started with earth sciences, neurosciences, developmental biology, psychology but I also chose art history just for fun. Especially for Neurosciences UCU provides a very good basis, because the field is so interdisciplinary. You get subjects like psychology, biology, chemistry and pharmacology. At least 6 of my fellow Alumni have eventually pursued a scientific career in Neurosciences. Also, from a social point of view I had a fantastic time at UCU. By meeting so many different people from all over the world, studying at UCU really broadened my horizon. It really stimulated me  to travel and live abroad. My best friends now are still those that I met at UCU.

What triggered you to continue in the field of Neurosciences? During the cognitive neuroscience I took at UCU, we had to set up our own experiment. We had a lot of fun making people wander around blindfolded in the cellar of the dining hall, and then our project turned out to be so successful that our professor asked us to present it at a Neuroscience conference in Spain. I figured that neuroscience was apparently easy and fun, and so doing my masters in this field was a logical choice. I then did internships at University College London and Harvard University, subsequently got accepted for a PhD Program at UCL. And I still find neuroscience really fun, though I’m not so sure about the easy anymore!  

What was your research about? The overarching theme of my research has been how our brains help us to we make decisions and adapt to a continuously changing world. During my 4-year Wellcome Trust PhD I looked at how surprising events are encoded in a group of nuclei called the basal ganglia, deep inside our brains. I then investigated how the basal ganglia redirect the information flow between other parts of the brain when we see or need to do something unexpected to measure brain activity, we used an MRI Scanner and analyzed the data with mathematical models to estimate the connections between brain regions.

And what does your current research focus on? It feels like we are in control of our actions and make decisions rationally. At the same time, many of our responses are strongly influenced by emotional and affective biases. Most of the time, these biases allow us to respond rapidly and effectively, so they provide something of a computational short cut to making decisions. However sometimes they get in the way of our long-term goals (for example in addiction), and then we need to be able to overrule them. In my current work, conducted at both New York University and the Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour in Nijmegen, I research how these biases affect our choices and when and in whom they get in the way of our goals. I tackle this problem from many different angles: I measure brain activity (fMRI, EEG, intracranial EEG), and how this changes when we alter levels of various neurochemicals using drugs, I study patients (obsessive compulsive disorder, depression), and how individual people vary as a function of their genetic make-up.

How would you like to stay connected to UCU? It would be nice to know which Alumni that came after me have also built a scientific career in Neuroscience and it would be interesting to meet these people to exchange ideas. I’m completely fine with students or young Alumni contacting me if they want to know more about my work. 

If you want to know more about Hanneke den Ouden’s research, read the article in The Guardian or listen to the radio interview at the BBC Naked Scientist.