Northwestern Events Calendar


From pain to defensive actions: saliency detection as a reactive process - Giandomenico Iannetti, MD, PhD

When: Friday, December 6, 2019
12:00 PM - 1:00 PM  

Where: Ward Building, Ward 5-230, 303 E. Chicago Avenue, Chicago, IL 60611 map it

Audience: Faculty/Staff - Student - Post Docs/Docs - Graduate Students

Contact: Michelle Mohney   312.503.5602

Group: Center for Translational Pain Research

Department of Physiology Seminars

Category: Lectures & Meetings


Giandomenico Iannetti, MD, PhD
Professor of Neuroscience
Neuroscience and Behaviour Laboratory
Italian Institute of Technology (IIT), Rome
Department of Neuroscience, Physiology & Pharmacology
University College London 

Remote Meeting Access
Join us remotely via Panopto.

The nervous system relates us to the rest of the world through perception and action: environmental information is continuously used to make decisions resulting in actions appropriate to achieve the ultimate objectives of life, survival and reproduction. For this reason, nervous systems are particularly sensitive towards the detection of sudden environmental events that need to be rapidly acted upon and imperil survival - a typical example being transient nociceptive stimuli causing pain. These stimuli elicit extremely large brain responses, which have been traditionally used to build models of where and how painful percepts are generated in the human brain, and, more recently, to infer whether an individual is in pain.

I will provide evidence that this dominant view is incorrect. Instead, I will suggest that the largest part of these brain responses reflect a basic mechanism through which the human brain detects and purposefully reacts to behaviourally-relevant sensory events, regardless of their perceptual quality. I will describe a basic physiological mechanisms that couples these saliency-related cortical responses with an activation of the motor system, indicating that saliency detection is not merely perceptive but reactive, preparing the animal for subsequent appropriate actions.

I will finally show how stimuli occurring near the body elicit stronger behavioural and physiological responses. This phenomenon, which makes evolutionary sense (a predator within striking distance is more salient than one farther away), led to the concept of peripersonal space (PPS). The common and intuitive description of PPS as a single, distance-based, in-or-out zone, is however contradicted by empirical data. I propose a reconceptualization that incorporates PPS into mainstream theories of action selection and behaviour.

Giandomenico Iannetti, MD, PhD, directs the Neuroscience and Behaviour Laboratory of the Italian Institute of Technology (IIT), and is Professor of Neuroscience at University College London (UCL). He leads a multidisciplinary research group ( working on sensorimotor neuroscience in humans and rodents. After a PhD from the University of Rome “La Sapienza” (2003) and a post-doc/lectureship at the University of Oxford (2003-2009), in 2009 he moved to University College London (UCL), where in 2014 was appointed Full Professor of Neuroscience. In 2018 he joined the Italian Institute of Technology. His research has been funded by programme grants of the Royal Society, Wellcome Trust, European Research Council and Medical Research Council.

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