Dr. H.M.B. (Heidi) Lesscher

Associate Professor
Behavioural Neuroscience
+31 6 39 585 507

Development mental health problems - what are the mechanisms that determine risk or resilience?  

I am Heidi Lesscher, Associate Professor and PI of the Neurobiology of Behaviour research group at the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine at Utrecht University. I am fascinated by the individual variation in susceptibility to mental health problems, which often arise at a younger age, both in humans and in animals. This has always been a central theme in my career. Mental health is complex, mental health problems are increasing in the rapidly changing world and are not unique to humans. 

My ambition is, together with my team, to better understand and prevent the development of behavioural problems, thereby contributing to the well-being of humans and animals.

Initially, my research was mainly focused on the neurobiology of addiction, but over the years the focus has shifted to individual variation in vulnerability/resilience to addiction. In recent years, my interest has shifted even further to the early development of cognitive control in general, and the role of play in the development of brain and behavior. 

Why is play so fascinating and important? Two key findings in my research made me realize how play really is: (1) play deprivation (i.e. deprivation of the ability to play) led to an increased sensitivity to addictive behavior and (2) rats with a greater natural tendency to engage in play had much more control over substance use later in life. 

In the Behavioural Neuroscience lab, we are currently studying:

1.       The role of risky play in the development of cognitive control over behaviour (PlayRisC – an NWO ENW-M project)

2.       The effects of age on the development of addictive behaviour (Aging Matters, a collaboration with Erasmus University Rotterdam and the University of Amsterdam)

3.       The neurobiological mechanisms of play behavior (Dr. Marijke Achterberg, assistant professor in my team)

In addition, we have smaller research projects in which we systematically investigate children's play behaviour (Research: LEGO play) and in which we investigate better housing for laboratory animals (Research: EC4Rats). 

Commonly used techniques in my team are: behavioural observations, (intracranial) pharmacology and operant behavioural tasks.

Play research and Dynamics of Youth

Our research into play and the development of the brain and behaviour extends beyond the laboratory. For example, years ago I came into contact with colleagues at the WKZ (UMCU) who told me that children with a chronic illness often struggle with a lack of connection with their peers and at the same time show developmental problems on a social, emotional and cognitive level. Couldn't play be an important factor here? This has led to the start of the collaborative project "Healthy Play Better Coping" within the strategic theme Dynamics of Youth. Among other things, we wrote the review "Healthy play, better coping: The importance of play for the development of children in health and disease", which is very often cited. 

In June 2022 I was appointed as one of the chairs for the DoY community Thriving and Healthy Youth, together with colleagues Sanne Nijhof, Odilia Laceulle and post-doc Anne Margit Reitsema.

Other ongoing projects I am involved in:

Shoulder-to-Shoulder – a project led by Dr. Sander Bakkes, in which we will investigate the influence of playing with a pinball machine on self-disclosure in boys. 

NWO RAAK-PRO project 'Playing Together' – a collaboration with HU University of Applied Sciences Utrecht that aims to develop an intervention for inclusive play for children with physical disabilities. 

Please watch this video where I explain more about our play research and Dynamics of Youth: