Prof. Dr. Dr. h.c. Onur Güntürkün, Biopsychology, Faculty of Psychology

Onur Güntürkün

Research Programme:

One of my research areas is cerebral asymmetry. I aim to disentangle the principles, with which asymmetries emerge in ontogeny and with which they are coded in the brain to create their profound impact on the way we perceive and think. These studies are performed with pigeons and humans. The discovery that the visual system of pigeons is asymmetrically organized was the starting point of a series of experiments, which analyzed the details of this lateralization in cognitive studies. Ontogenetic experiments showed which embryonic mechanisms trigger and shape the asymmetry and finally give rise to asymmetries in neuronal wiring and single cell coding. Visual lateralization in birds is thus the only model system in which the foundations of a cerebral asymmetry can be analyzed in unprecedented details. My current research tries to disentangle a) early ontogenetic signals that start avian asymmetry; b) the cellular foundations of decisions within the lateralized brain; c) the left-right differences of cognition in birds. A different approach is being conducted in humans. Here, my group has studies the anatomical, electrophysiological, and genetic foundations of cerebral asymmetries in humans. By combining studies in birds and humans we aim to develop an overarching neural explanation of sensory, cognitive, and motor asymmetries.

My second focus of interest can be condensed into a single sentence: “How do thoughts emerge from brain activity”. This question can meanwhile be asked with a new twist since we and some other groups could show that birds (that do not have a cortex) show the identical cognitive properties and achievements as mammals. Thus, there is cognition without cortex. But how does it work? The bird forebrain is unlaminated and organized in nuclei and clusters. We could show that the forebrain of birds and mammals is homologues and that the cellular mechanisms for different cognitive operations are virtually identical for birds and mammals. Thus, the cellular organisation seems to be relevant for the functional output while the overall organisation like cortical lamination is secondary. Based on these insights, I developed a research agenda in which we could show that birds have a forebrain structure that is analogues to the prefrontal cortex. This conclusion is based on a wealth of data that derive from behavioural, anatomical, neurochemical, electrophysiological, and molecular studies. The avian and the mammalian version of prefrontal forebrain structures became similar within the scope of convergent evolution. Overall these insights allow us to draw a tantalizing conclusion: Birds and mammals were possibly faced with similar selection pressures for the development of specific cognitive abilities. Their radically different forebrains converged as a result of this similar selection pressure towards comparable neurobiological mechanisms with which similar cognitive achievement were produced.

I’m fascinated by the implications of these kinds of research. If you want to share our enthusiasm, just join our team.