Wednesday, 13. March 2024

KL accredited for PhD programme "Mental Health and Neuroscience"

Karl Landsteiner University of Health Sciences in Krems (KL Krems) has successfully received accreditation for its first PhD programme "Mental Health and Neuroscience". On 16 February 2024, the Agency for Quality Assurance and Accreditation (AQ Austria) legally approved KL Krems' application to establish the doctoral programme. The University of Health in Lower Austria has thus set another key milestone in its academic study architecture.

The PhD programme "PhD Program Mental Health and Neuroscience: Disease Mechanisms – Diagnostics and Therapy – Clinical Neuroscience" at KL Krems is an excellence-oriented doctoral programme with an interdisciplinary focus in the field of mental health, basic neurobiological research and clinical and applied neuroscience: It enables PhD students to develop and conduct experimental and empirical research projects in these highly relevant bridging disciplines in health science. The aim is to enable future scientists to take a coherent view of the different subject areas and at the same time carry out specialized research work. 

„After an intensive phase of preparation and several months of assessment by AQ Austria, we are very pleased that the unique interdisciplinary orientation of our doctoral programme has been positively assessed," emphasizes Prof. Dr. Rudolf Mallinger, Rector of KL Krems. „This underlines once again that we have truly got our finger on the pulse of the times with our focus on interdisciplinarity in our teaching and research programmes. We are thus building a valuable bridge in these highly relevant topics in order to pool expertise and inspire young prospective researchers for this exciting field."

The bridge discipline "Mental Health and Neuroscience" has been promoted at KL Krems for many years in the form of a core research area. „With the PhD programme, we are now offering a promising training programme for graduates of medicine, psychology and relevant natural science studies who can obtain their scientific qualification at our university in order to ultimately establish themselves in international scientific society with their research work", summarizes Prof. Dr. Gerald Obermair, who heads the Division of Physiology at the Department of Pharmacology, Physiology and Microbiology and coordinates the PhD programme. „With the accreditation, we can actively promote the doctoral programme and expect a great deal of interest in this topic."

WHO recommends scientific research into mental health 
Studies show that people with severe depression or schizophrenia have a 40 to 60 times higher risk of dying prematurely. This is partly due to physical health problems that often go untreated, such as cancer, cardiovascular disease or diabetes. At the same time, physical illnesses can also have a lasting effect on the psyche. Research into mental health, i.e. how it affects our thinking, behavior and body, is also expressly recommended in the World Mental Health Report of the World Health Organization (WHO). In future, neuroscience should be more closely involved in questions relating to mental health in order to define and treat disorders of the nervous system.

Three levels of research work 
Specifically, the researchers at KL Krems are working on this highly topical subject on three levels. They benefit from the close collaboration between the various research working groups. „Basic neurobiological research is the first area of the research programme," explains Gerald Obermair. „Here we investigate disease mechanisms and physical components, for example in relation to the plasticity of individual nerve cells and the brain.“ Neurological and degenerative diseases can lead to disorders of this plasticity, the reasons for which are multifactorial. In the case of autism or schizophrenia, for example, it is important to investigate the cellular causes that may underlie these developmental disorders. In addition, methods are being developed to enable the early detection of degenerative eye diseases and neuronal circulatory disorders using retinal diagnostics. This also includes the further development of state-of-the-art statistical methods.

The second level, which is being implemented in close cooperation with the university hospitals in Tulln and St. Pölten, deals with the diagnosis and treatment of mental health. Gerald Obermair: „This is about psychological components, i.e. which methods we can use and develop to investigate how mental health disorders develop and how the often very complex treatment strategies can be successfully implemented." Other important questions include how to deal with artificial intelligence and big data in the future. „In clinical psychiatry in particular, these are complex diagnostic criteria that could enable us to identify and treat causes.“

Clinical and applied neurosciences form the third research focus, which is also being developed together with the clinics' experts. „Here we are looking at the development and treatment of neurodegenerative diseases, clinical neurooncology and neuroimmunology. And we are investigating questions such as how food allergies can affect mental health or what consequences a stroke can have on the psyche", summarizes the physiologist.

Details on the PhD programme and the application process will be available shortly.

Faculty of the PhD programme "Mental Health and Neuroscience" at the Karl Landsteiner University of Health Sciences (Excerpt)


  • Principal Investigators:

The function of synapses in health and disease 

The working group of Prof. Gerald Obermair, head of the Division of Physiology in the research focus "Mental Health and Neuroscience" at Karl Landsteiner University, is investigating the role of calcium-regulating proteins in the connections between nerve cells in the brain, the synapses. "The contractions of heart and skeletal muscles and the release of hormones and neurotransmitters are made possible by calcium. Special pores in the cell membranes, known as calcium channels, regulate how much calcium enters the cells and thus regulate a wide range of important bodily functions." The diverse functions of calcium channels therefore represent a key area of research when it comes to understanding the progress of neurodevelopmental disorders: In recent years, for example, many mutations have been discovered which can lead to over- or under-functioning of calcium channels and have thus been linked to the development of autism, for example. The calcium channels not only regulate the influx of calcium, but are also responsible for the correct formation and wiring of synapses. This is of particular interest as neurodevelopmental disorders can be caused by synaptic dysfunction and incorrect networking.

Research into neurophysiological processes through data analytics

Prof. Dr. Sascha Klee heads the Division of Biostatistics and Data Science at KL. "The planned PhD programme has a strong connecting component that lies in the field of data science. I see excellent opportunities here to apply new methods of data processing and multimodal statistical analyses and to develop these further. On the other hand, my division itself has many years of experience in the field of modeling and analyzing neurophysiological processes, which makes the programme even more attractive for future research work."

Ethics as a compass for mental and physical health

The task of the Division of Biomedical Ethics and Healthcare Ethics at KL is to impart a basic knowledge of ethical challenges, but also to sharpen students' skills with regard to the ethical evaluation of procedures and research approaches as well as clinical decisions, explains the head, Prof. Dr. phil. habil. Giovanni Rubeis. "My research focuses on the ethical issues of neurotechnology, such as deep brain stimulation or neuroprosthetics, as well as neuroenhancement. I also conduct research into digital health technologies in the field of mental health, particularly AI applications and mental health apps." The main focus here is on the question of how these technologies can be designed and used in a personalized way. "In the HORIZON Europe project "ASP-belong", for example, we are currently working on the prospects of participatory technology development for a mental health app for young people based on augmented reality." However, according to the expert, ethical questions always arise from new developments and processes and are of crucial importance, especially in times of artificial intelligence.

Methods and measurements as a basis for questions

At the Division of Psychological Methodology within the Mental Health and Neuroscience research focus, PD Dr. Stefan Stieger, Head of the Division, and his team are working on the latest issues. "Our focus areas include experience sampling, i.e. closely timed longitudinal measurements in the field over a certain period of time using smartphones and wearables, but also the analysis of large data sets in order to investigate effects not only at an individual but also at a global level. Mental health must always be considered on a psychological and physiological level. Neuroscience supports our research with imaging techniques."

Clinical research - a holistic view of the human being

At the Division of Psychiatry and Psychotherapeutic Medicine at Tulln University Hospital, Prim. Assoc. Prof. PD. Dr. Martin Aigner works on clinical research issues. "The collaboration gives us the opportunity to adapt research in line with needs and structures. Clinical operations can be updated through research and at the same time provide research with important questions. The Mental Health and Neuroscience research area is therefore of great importance for a holistic view of the body and mind." Researching the interaction is also relevant for practice and new therapies, for example in questions of nutrition, the examination of the nervous system or the intestines and the effect of microbiomes.

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Interdisciplinary cooperation in cognitive research

Prim. Assoc. Prof. PD Dr. Stefan Oberndorfer, Head of the Division of Neurology at St. Pölten - Lilienfeld University Hospital, conducts research in the field of clinical neuro-oncology. This includes the diagnosis and treatment of brain tumors, as well as the neurotoxicity of neuro-oncological and oncological treatment strategies. "My research projects aim to preserve or restore neuronal function in various pathological processes, such as neuro-oncology, multiple sclerosis, epilepsy, neuroinfectiology and stroke." He sees the interdisciplinary collaboration with Karl Landsteiner University as a great asset when it comes to future issues. "In a broader sense, an intact nervous system and cognitive functions are an important factor for mental health. The joint development of research questions involving basic research in the field of neuro-oncology and cognitive research contributes significantly to the quality of life in various neurological diseases.