Chair of Physiology

Projects and Theses


  Projectnr.: 16426



Preeclampsia, a pregnancy-specific disorder characterized as hypertension associated with proteinuria, is one of the leading causes of maternal and perinatal mortality and morbidity, preterm birth, and fetal growth restriction.

More than 25,000 articles were published on preeclampsia. Nevertheless, given the importance of cardiovascular health on an individual basis as well as for the health care costs, studies linking cardiovascular disease prevention with preeclampsia have played a subordinate role in current research so far. The issue that is perhaps most relevant to society is the context of the “stress test” pregnancy and the tremendous changes of living conditions as well as their relation to personal interests and values.

We know that women with a history of preeclampsia have a 4-fold higher risk of chronic hypertension, a 3-fold higher risk of type 2 diabetes mellitus and a doubled risk of stroke in later life. Therefore, we propose that the relationship of pregnancy complicated by preeclampsia and the future cardiovascular risk might in general be a chance for the implementation of primary prevention strategies. Based on this reasoning, in the current study the participants with/without pregnancy complication will be exposed to a self-relevant stressor postpartum, and several vasoactive hormones, endothelial characteristics and functions, hemodynamic and autonomous nervous system variables will be analysed and possible moderating factors will be investigated.

We hypothesize to find different psychophysiological responses to a self-relevant stressor in a standardized study protocol carried out postpartum depending on the course of pregnancy. This would be an important indicator for counselling the concerned women about their risk and the benefits of modifying their lifestyle.


Dissertations and supervised Theses:


Correlation between sedentary way of life, fall-related injury and transient cardiovascular responses

Regina Csanády-Leitner

A study of the University of Regensburg from March 2014 shows that people of Western Europe are sitting motionless up to 50-60% every day - that means that we are sitting more than half of the day time (Schmid & Leitzmann, 2014). The sedentary behavior of the modern society has to expect the consequences that sedentary is the health risk number one (de Rezende etal., 2014). Falls are the second frequent cause of death worldwide and especially at the age of over 65 years (WHO Global Report, 2007). Furthermore sedentary way of life causes the decrease of muscle mass and higher risk for sarcopenia (Gianoudis et al., 2015), a term primarily defined as low level of muscle mass (Lang et al., 2009). The changing of muscle mass is closely related to changes in muscle strength (Bijlsma et al., 2012) and the ageing process is associated with loss of muscle mass and strength and a decline in physical functioning.
The highest percentage of sedentary behaviour is found in the group of elder subjects, over 60 up to 85 years old and sitting around 8.5 hours a day (Harvey, et al., 2013). Concomitant to sedentary is a decrease of cognitive abilities indicating a higher risk of falls (Doi et al., 2014). Attention and executive functions show strong associations with slow gait and falls in seniors. They are amenable to cognitive remediation.
Sedentary behaviour influences the also cardiorespiratoric system negativly (Saidj et al., 2014). Cardiovascular responses to mental load have been studied using a variety of mental stress tasks (Boutcher et al., 2003). Most studies report an increase in heart rate, systolic and/or diastolic blood pressures, respiratory frequency (Schleifer & Ley, 1994) and skin conductance (Jacobs et al., 1994), but decreases in heart rate variability during performance of tasks (Callister et al., 1992; Iani et al., 2004; Vincent et al., 1996; Lackner et al., 2011).
Within this planned pilot study we focus on the connection between sedentary way of life, fall-related injury and transient cardiovascular response. Based on thesis supervisors’ knowledge and experience in cardiovasculare monitoring, psychophysiology, presynkope study and digital signal converting and software development, we expect a difference in the cardiovascular responses between the intervention group and the contol group.

in cooperation with
Department of accident surgery, Medical University Graz
Head: Univ. Prof. Mag. phil. Dr. med. Franz Josef Seibert
Medical University Graz – Institute of Physiology Sen. lect. DI Dr. sci. med. Helmut Karl Lackner
Ao. Univ.-Prof. Mag. Dr. rer. nat. Andreas Rössler

Cardiovascular reactivity in emotion regulation – Development and testing of a paradigm

Kathrin Hilgarter

To determine the effects of psychological stress on cardiovascular reactivity, stressors which may be defined as ‘active coping tasks’ are commonly used (Obrist, 1981). Previous studies confirmed cardiovascular adjustment during active performance situations which is mainly characterized by changes in the respiratory rate, increased heart rate and increased systolic blood pressure – probably mediated by beta-adrenergic discharge on the cardiovascular system (Eubanks et al., 2002; Lackner et al., 2010; 2011; 2014; Richter et al., 2008). Noteworthy cardiovascular adjustments also occur in the context of emotion processing (Lackner et al. 2011; 2013; 2014b; Papousek et al. 2011, 2013; 2014; Paechter & Lackner, 2011). Both, cardiovascular reactivity to and cardiovascular recovery from active performance or positive and negative emotion-laden situations, measured in the laboratory, are cross-sectionally and prospectively linked to health outcomes such as hypertension, atherosclerosis, obesity, major depression, and global self-reported health. (Brosschot et al., 2006; Bylsma et al., 2008; Chida & Steptoe, 2010; Heponiemi et al., 2007; Phillips, 2011; Phillips et al., 2009; Rottenberg et al., 2002; Steptoe et al., 2006).
The major aim of the dissertation project is to develop and extensively evaluate a paradigm, which is simple and applicable to all age- and education-levels, in order to establish its use in clinical research and practice. The stimulation methods will be based on material that was successfully used in previous studies of the supervisor's research group. Following recent developments in the supervisor's lab, the main focus will be on the detailed analysis of short-term dynamics of transient cardiovascular responses.
In a first step, the paradigm will be developed based on previous research of the research team “aiPP” (applied interdisciplinary Psycho Physiology) and an extensive literature review. Next, the paradigm will be tested in a cohort of healthy subjects. Cardiovascular (e.g. ECG) and questionnaire methods will be applied to observe the reactivity. Second, there are two possible scenarios. If the application and evaluation of the paradigm in the second year is successful, the paradigm will be applied in a clinical setting on the basis of a small sample. If the application and evaluation of the paradigm in the second year fails to achieve the desired results, the paradigm will be modified to enable an application in clinical practice.

BiP-APP: a technical approach for dealing with Bipolar Disorder

Frederike Fellendorf

Bipolar disorder is a severe chronic psychiatric disease with episodes of depression and (hypo)mania. These recurrent mood changes have serious consequences on the patients’ and their relatives’ lives, as well as on the health care system. Until now the best outcome was obtained by a combination of medication, regular appointments with the attending doctor, psychotherapy and psychoeducation. The therapy of the bipolar disorder is challenging as there are no biological markers that could give information at what time a new episode is reaching. Depressive as well as (hypo)manic episodes do not occur without previous warning-symptoms. If people with bipolar disorder are aware of these warning-symptoms they can react accurately and seek help in time, which might prevent the onset of a manic or depressive episode.

We suggest that patients would like to have an additional possibility to deal with their disease. Therefore the startup company memo-tec is developing the BiP-APP for smartphones. The hypothesis is that this app can help to recognize incipient symptoms of depression and (hypo)manic episodes and can help to sensitize patients to their individual course of disease through the use of psychoeducation tools. By identifying the beginning of an episode as soon as possible the treatment could be adapted earlier and the illness course could be influenced positively.

The dissertation, which is part of a cooperation between the institute of physiology and the university-clinic of psychiatry and psychotherapeutic medicine, will investigate whether people with bipolar disorder would profit from a technical support in their treatment. Moreover it will evaluate the test phase of the developed app on healthy controls as well as on patients with bipolar disorder by conducting a study which compares clinical findings with app data.

Functional connectivity in Alzheimer’s disease: microstructural, structural and cognitive associations.

Jochen Mosbacher

The hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease is a decrease in cognitive abilities and an increasing disturbance of functional cortical-cortical connectivity is often regarded as a possible reason for these impairments (Berendse et al., 2000; Bodke et al., 2009; Stam & Dijk, 2002). A smaller magnitude of the cortical connectivity is one of the most frequent found differences between healthy persons and AD patients (Jeong, 2004) and this reduction in cortical connectivity was shown in several frequency bands (Adler et al., 2003; Leuchter et al., 1992; Locatelli et al., 1998). Additionally there are studies that show, that the connectivity increases in healthy people, when they process a cognitive task (Babiloni et al., 2004; Sauseng et al., 2005; Weiss & Rappelsberger, 2000). Thereby, the amount of increase relates to the performance in the cognitive task, whereby a greater increase relates to a better cognitive performance (Weiss & Rappelsberger, 2000). So far, there is only little information on the change of connectivity in AD patients during the processing of cognitive tasks. We will therefore investigate, whether there is a similar increase of connectivity from rest to activation in AD patients as it is seen in healthy persons or not, and whether the magnitude of those changes is related to the severity of AD. Additionally it is planned to investigate the impairments of cortical-cortical connections by investigating fibre-integrity. This is possible by measuring the fractional anisotropy (FA) via diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) (Beaulieu, 2002). There are several studies which show differences between healthy persons and AD patients in terms of integrity of cortical-cortical fibres. Especially intra- and interhemispheric long distance connections in, for example, the corpus callosum or the superior longitudinal fasciculus seem to be affected (Bozzali et al., 2002; Douaud et al., 2011; Fellgiebel et al., 2008; Medina & Gaviria, 2008; Medina et al., 2006), while cortical-subcortical connections seem intact (Rose et al., 2000). It is apparent that this decreased integrity could be related to the cortical synchronicity. Hence, we will investigate the relationship between functional connectivity and fibre integrity in AD-patients. The last part will be the investigation off possible prognostic values of functional connectivity marker on the progress on AD. Therefore, we follow AD-patients over the course of two years and analyse, whether those EEG-marker yield additional, unique information about the progress of AD.

Observing the observer: neurophysiology of Gestalt perception

Iris Tomantschger (iDN)


Cardiovascular Consequences of Preeclampsia and Pregnancy Induced Hypertension

(SIH) Jakob Riedl
(as part of the Österreichische Nationalbank Jubiläumsfond project 16426: Pregnancy complications: challenge and/or chance for further cardiovascular risk in later life?)

Preeclampsia, a pregnancy-specific disorder, is characterized as hypertension in conjunction with proteinuria. It is one of the leading causes of maternal and perinatal mortality and morbidity, as well as of preterm birth and fetal growth restriction (Duley, 2009; Khan et al., 2006; Sibai et al., 2006; Steegers et al., 2010). The reported incidence of preeclampsia lies between approximately 3-5% (Lisonkova & Joseph, 2013; Sibai et al., 2005) in industrialized countries and even up to 20% in some countries of the developing world (WHO, 2014). Many theories about the cause(s) of preeclampsia were developed within the past years - though with little agreement. The conclusion that preeclampsia is a multifactorial disease however seems quite reasonable and finds broad acceptance (Nelson et al., 2014; Pennington et al., 2012).
During pregnancy the maternal cardiovascular system (CVS) undergoes profound changes (e.g. Carlin & Alfirevic, 2008). Aside neuro-hormonal mechanisms, the integrity of parasympathetic and sympathetic systems is essential for the cardiovascular regulation and adaption in order to operate effectively under the changing conditions. Many approaches have been made to predict adverse pregnancy outcome at an early stage (e.g., Malberg et al., 2007; Valensise et al., 2008) and some promising insights were discovered (e.g., Pennington et al., 2012, Powe et al., 2011). The aetiology though still remains incompletely understood.
For the current research proposal within the planned master thesis even more significant is the fact that women with a history of adverse pregnancy outcome are at heightened risk of metabolic and vascular diseases in later life (Sattar & Greer, 2002). Women with a history of preeclampsia have a 4-fold higher risk of chronic hypertension, a 3-fold higher risk of type 2 diabetes mellitus and a doubled risk of stroke in later life (Bellamy et al., 2007; Bramham et al., 2014; McDonald et al., 2008, Davis et al., 2012). Moreover, pregnancy complications are associated with low birth weight, which is in turn related to a heightened risk of subsequent ischaemic heart disease and mothers' mortality per se (Davey­Smith et al., 2000; Smith et al., 2001).
The identification of risk factors is important for the management of maternal complication. While clinical correlates of preeclampsia have been intensively studied, social-psychological factors have received little attention from research so far (Cacioppo et al., 2003; Seeman, 2000). There is however increasing evidence that psychological factors such as psychosocial stress and especially mood disorders such as depression and anxiety are independent risk factors for the progression of cardiovascular disease (e.g., Lichtman et al., 2014; de Miranda Avezo et al., 2014;). Psychosocial stress as well as depression both induce sympathetic arousal and activate the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis and may thus promote dysregulation of the autonomic system and changes in the proinflammatory activity (e.g. York, Hassan, & Sheps, 2009).
Within the proposed master thesis cardiovascular reactivity in women with/without pregnancy complications should be investigated in a standardized study protocol carried out postpartum. Hemodynamic, humoral, endothelial and autonomous nervous system variables will be analyzed and related to possible moderating psycho-social factors. It is expected to find different psychophysiological responses to a self-relevant stressor depending on the course of pregnancy (e.g., Lovallo, 2011).
We suggest that the proposed research will offer the possibility for counselling the concerned women about their risk and the benefits of modifying their lifestyle. As pre-eclampsia affects approximately 3-5% of pregnancies, possible findings are relevant for approximately 3.500 pregnancies per year in Austria. 

Stressinduced cardiovasculare reaktivity in adolescents – comparison of preterm and term born young people.

Stressinduzierte kardiovaskuläre Reaktivität bei Jugendlichen – Vergleich von Früh- zu Normalgeborenen. 

Anna Mangge

Kardiovaskuläre Erkrankungen zählen in Österreich, ebenso wie in vielen anderen westlichen Ländern, seit Jahren zu den häufigsten Todesursachen. Dies unterstreicht im Sinne der Prävention die Notwendigkeit, Personen mit erhöhtem Risiko rechtzeitig zu identifizieren und entsprechende Maßnahmen im Sinne der Gesundheitsvorsorge zu setzen.
Neben anderen bekannten und bereits vielfach untersuchten Faktoren wie Übergewicht, Alkohol- oder Nikotinsucht konnten Sattar und Greer (2002) bei Frauen mit Schwanger-schaftskomplikationen erstmals ein deutlich erhöhtes Risiko für Herz-Kreislauf-Erkrankungen nachweisen. So ist beispielsweise das Risiko für chronischen Bluthochdruck bei Patientinnen mit Präeklampsie um ein 4-faches erhöht, das Risiko für Diabetes mellitus um das 3-fache und das eines Schlaganfalls etwa doppelt so hoch (Bellamy et al., 2007; Bramham et al., 2014; McDonald et al., 2008, Davis et al., 2012).
Während der Schwangerschaft erfährt das kardiovaskuläre System der werdenden Mutter massive Veränderungen, die zur Gewährleistung einer normalen/gesunden Schwangerschaft notwendig sind (Carlin & Alfirevic, 2008; van Oppen et al., 1996). Neben neuro-hormonellen Mechanismen hängt die effiziente kardiovaskuläre Regulation unter den sich ändernden Bedingungen auch von der Integrität des sympathischen- und parasympathischen Systems ab, wobei die Rolle des Autonomen Nervensystems (ANS) bei dieser Anpassung derzeit nicht vollständig geklärt ist (Fu & Levine, 2009) Neben dem Alter der werdenden Mutter sowie erblich bedingten und Umweltfaktoren, zählen Schwangerschaftskomplikationen wie Präeklampsie, erhöhter Blutzucker und schwanger-schaftsinduzierte Hypertonie zu den häufigsten Ursachen frühzeitiger Geburten und/oder fötaler Wachstumsretardierung (Akkermans et al., 2014; Duley, 2009; Khan et al., 2006; Lee et al., 2001; Sibai et al., 2006; Steegers et al., 2010). Schwangerschafts-komplikationen gehen häufig mit einem geringen Geburtsgewicht einher, welches seinerseits wiederum mit einem erhöhten Risiko ischämischer Herzerkrankungen assoziiert ist (Davey­Smith et al., 2000; Smith et al., 2001). Auch für den Nachwuchs an Präeklampsie erkrankter Mütter bildet sich bereits in den ersten 20 Lebensjahren ein erhebliches Risiko aus: ihre Kinder zeigen ein 4-fach erhöhtes Risiko für arteriellen Bluthochdruck, ein 2-fach erhöhtes Risiko für ischämische Herzerkrankungen und ebenfalls ein 2-fach erhöhtes Risiko für einen Schlaganfall.
Eine Frühgeburt kann also, auch ohne kongenitale Erkrankung, kognitive und kardio-vaskuläre Defizite zur Folge haben - das erhöhte Risiko kardiovaskulärer Erkrankungen ist also auch bei Kindern gegeben (Crump et al. 2011; Chan et al. 2010, Hack, 2006).
Frühgeborene Kinder leiden häufig an Entwicklungsdefiziten, die sich bis ins Jugendalter ziehen können. Die vorgestellte Pilotstudie hat zum Ziel mögliche Unterschiede in der kardiovaskulären Reaktionsdynamik jugendlicher Gesunder im Vergleich zu Frühgeborenen zu identifizieren. Im Rahmen der geplanten Diplomarbeit soll die kardiovaskuläre Reaktionsdynamik bei mentalem Stress untersucht werden und mögliche kognitive und/oder physiologische Defizite zwischen Jugendlichen, die termingerecht zur Welt kamen und Jugendlichen, die frühzeitig geboren wurden, aufzeigen.
Der Nachweis einer inadäquaten kardiovaskulären Reaktionsdynamik als Indikator eines erhöhten Risikos (vormals) frühgeborener Jugendlicher könnte zukunftsweisend für die Diagnostik sowie für die Entwicklung und frühzeitige Einleitung genereller Präventivmaßnahmen bedeuten.

Cardiovascular reactivity under cognitive and emotional stimulation in healthy women.

Kardiovaskulärer Reaktivität unter kognitiver und emotionaler Belastung bei gesunden Frauen.

Nina Gräfling
Entwicklung und Erprobung eines Messparadigmas und Erweiterung der Datenbank: „Cardiovascular reactivity in emotion regulation“.

Kardiovaskuläre Reaktionen unterliegen zentralnervöser Steuerung und werden durch mentale sowie emotionale Prozesse moduliert. Diese dynamischen Prozesse sollen an einer Gruppe gesunder erwachsener Frauen untersucht werden, um eine Datenbank zum normativen Vergleich klinischer Stichproben zu generieren.
Es wird erwartet, dass gesunde Erwachsene eine höhere Adaptionsleistung inklusive einer rascheren Erholung und Rückkehr zum Ausgangswert nach mentaler und emotionaler Belastung aufweisen als klinische Stichproben.
Die Forschungsfrage ist für Frauen und Männer von gleicher Bedeutung. Im Rahmen dieser Diplomarbeit wird auf Grund der Komplexität eine Subgruppe von gesunden Frauen in einem definierten Altersbereich untersucht und stellt damit die Erweiterung einer Datenbank zum Vergleich dynamischer kardiovaskulärer Reaktionen im Zusammenhang mit emotionaler Belastung dar. Die Erhebung der physiologischen Daten erfolgt mittels Task-Force-Monitor: synchrone kontinuierliche EKG- und Blutdruckmessung (CNSystems, Graz).
Im Rahmen der Studie sollen etwa 50-60 gesunde Probandinnen im Alter von 18 bis 45 Jahren getestet werden, die noch nicht schwanger waren oder bei denen eine frühere Schwangerschaft bereits länger (>5a) zurückliegt.
Als Hauptzielgrößen gelten: Blutdruck, Herzfrequenz, Atemfrequenz Als Nebenzielgrößen: Psychologischer Variablen wie Depressivität, Stressverarbeitung, Kognitive Funktionen, Lern- und Gedächtnisleistung
Die Analyse der Daten erfolgt am Institut für Physiologie/Arbeitsbereich: applied interdisciplinary PsychoPhysiology (aiPP), die statistische Auswertung der Fragebögen und Tests sowie die Aufbereitung der physiolog ischen Daten erfolgen mittles SPSS und Matlab, resp..




Goal orientation in achievement situations and its relationship with physiological, cognitive, and emotional processes 

Sigrid Wimmer

Motivation is a core issue in education; however the underlying processes of motivation, i.e., goal orientation, became of major interest in research on motivation. Goal orientations direct motivation and they are considered as predictors of students’ success. Considering achievement situations, it is assumed that different types of goal orientation correspond differently to the individual effort that is raised to overcome a challenge. It is expected that differences in effort investment are observable concerning cardiovascular adaption and recovery. To investigate relationships between the different types of goal orientation and cardiovascular responses, the following studies were conducted: In Study 1, students‘ (n = 58) goal orientations were recorded via questionnaire. Participants completed questions on statistics in a laboratory paradigm. Simultaneous measured heart rate revealed a negative significant correlation between work avoidance goals and heart rate. Results state that participants who aim to keep their costs low, showed lowest increases in heart rate during task competition. In Study 2, students‘ (n = 69) goal orientations and heart rate before, during, and after a presentation were recorded. Results show that performance-approach goals are related to reduced sympathovagal balance, i.e., reduced stress response, after the presentation. On the one hand, results reveal that goal orientations have an impact on cardiovascular responses, on the other hand results reveal that students’ might be able so chose goals corresponding to situational demands. Results show that goal orientations can be related to maladaptive or adaptive processes during and after an achievement situation. In addition, this work provides information concerning students’ cardiovascular reactivity in both, in a laboratory and in a real-life academic achievement situation. A comparison of results of both studies sheds more light on students’ stress in everyday academic life.

Keywords: Goal orientation, achievement situation, heart rate

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