Systems neuropharmacology of aversive learning

Research Group


Our research focuses on neurotransmitter systems involved in aversive learning. In particular, we investigate how neurotransmitters such as Dopamine, Opioids and Cannabinoids contribute to emotional states of fear and anxiety. Moreover, we try to understand how these neurotransmitters influence the dynamics of learned fear and their impact on models of behavioural treatment of anxiety related disorders.

We employ basic learning paradigms such as classical conditioning, which enables translational neuroscientific research across species. To draw inferences on the neuropharmacological systems involved in these basic aversive learning processes, we combine pharmacological neuroimaging (fMRI) methods with psychophysiological measurements of threat responses.

  • Staff
  • Staff
    Jan Haaker
    Jan Haaker
    • Wissenschaftlicher Arbeitsgruppenleiter


    W34, 2. Etage, Raumnummer 208


    Dr. Roland Eßer

    I studied psychology at the Westfälische-Wilhelms Universität in Münster and obtained my PhD in neuroscience at the Department of Systems Neuroscience at the Medical University Center Hamburg-Eppendorf.
    During my PhD I worked on applied basic research in respiratory diseases such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). More precisely, I investigated how the chronic experience of breathlessness (dyspnea) impacts brain structure and function in patients with COPD and how brain changes interplay with disease-specific characteristics (e.g., disease-specific fears, depression, anxiety, physical condition). I also examined the neural processing of dyspnea in healthy individuals mainly focused on the interaction between psychological factors such as affective states, personality traits but also genetics.
    In December 2016 I joined the group on Systems Neuropharmacology Research as a Postdoc to work on the SFB-TRR58 (link: ) sub-project B10. This project investigates the neuropharmacological mechanisms of the dopaminergic and the endocannabinoid neurostransmitter system on extinction learning processes. The major aim is to delineate the separate effect of the two transmitter systems as well as their interaction within the neural circuits mediating extinction learning and retrieval.

    PhD Student

    Madeleine Müller

    Student Assistant

    Smilla Weisser

    • Neuropharmacological regulation of social (observational) fear learning
    • Pharmacological enhancement of fear extinction
    • Fear memory dynamics and return of fear
    • Pharmacological connectomics and graph models of fMRI resting-state

  • Esser R, Fuss J & Haaker J: Initial evidence for pharmacological modulation of observational threat learning by the GABAergic, but not the noradrenergic system in humans Behav Res Ther 2020 Jun;129:103605.

    Haaker J, Yi J, Petrovic P & Olsson A.: Endogenous opioids regulate social threat learning in humans. Nature Communications 2017 May 25;8:15495.

    Haaker J*, Golkar A*, Selbing I* & Olsson A.: Assessment of social transmission of threats in humans using observational fear conditioning. Nature Protocols 2017 Jul;12(7):1378-1386. (*=equal contributions)

    Lindström B *, Haaker J*, Olsson A.: A common neural network differentially mediates direct and social fear learning. NeuroImage. 2017; 167:121-129.(*=equal contributions)

    Haaker J, Lonsdorf TB, Schümann D, Bunzeck N, Peters J, Sommer T & Kalisch R.: Where There is Smoke There is Fear-Impaired Contextual Inhibition of Conditioned Fear in Smokers. Neuropsychopharmacology 2017 Jul;42(8):1640-1646.

    Haaker J, Menz M, Fadai T, Eippert F & Büchel C: Dopaminergic receptor blockade changes a functional connectivity network centred on the amygdala Human Brain Mapping 2016 Nov;37(11):4148-4157.

    Haaker J, Gaburro S, Sah A, Gartmann N, Lonsdorf TB, Meier K, Singewald N, Pape H-C, Morellini F* & Kalisch R* : A single dose of L-DOPA makes extinction memories context-independent and prevents the return of fear. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A (PNAS). 2013 Jun 25;110(26):E2428-36.(*=equal contributions)

    Haaker J, Hermanns D, Golkar A & Lonsdorf TB: A review on human reinstatement studies: An overview and methodological challenges. Learning & Memory 2014 Sep 21: 424-440.

    Haaker J, Molapour T, Olsson A.: Conditioned social dominance threat: observation of others' social dominance biases threat learning. Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci. 2016 May 20.

    Haaker J, Lonsdorf TB, Kalisch R: Effects of post-extinction L-DOPA administration on the spontaneous recovery and reinstatement of fear in a human fMRI study Eur Neuropsychopharmacol. 2015 Oct;25(10):1544-55.

  • SFB TRR-58 Fear, Anxiety, Anxiety Disorders, Project B10 The influence and interaction of the dopaminergic and endocannabinoid system on extinction learning mechanisms

    DFG "Research stipend" The neurobiological mechanisms of social return of fear (HA 7470/1-1)

    DFG Research Grant: Systems neuropharmacology of nicotine in aversive learning in humans (HA 7470/3-1)

    German-Israeli Foundation, Young Investigator Grant

  • Prof. Andreas Olsson Department of Clinical Neuroscience, Karolinska Institutet, Sweden

    Prof. Joseph LeDoux and Dr.Lorenzo Diaz-Mataix Center for Neural Science, NYU, USA

    Dr. Kai Jünglich University of Muenster, Germany

    Prof. Beat Lutz University Medical Center Mainz, Germany

    Dr. Christian Sprenger University of Cambridge, England