A new ERC grant to the Department of Ethology

A new ERC grant to the Department of Ethology

Attila Andics (ELTE Department of Ethology) has been awarded a Starting Grant from the European Research Council (ERC), the most prestigious European research fund. During the five-year project Andics and his team will develop state-of-the-art cognitive neuroscientific methods to study how the brain of domesticated animals adapted to the human communicative environment. This project will also help understand how the emergence of speech may have shaped human brain mechanisms.

The aim of the ERC Starting Grant is to promote outstanding young researchers. The project entitled Voice and speech perception across mammals: a comparative study of humans, dogs and pigs (VOIMA), has received a 1.9 million EUR funding in a five year scheme. Andics is the second young researcher at the ELTE Department of Ethology to receive this grant, Enikő Kubinyi’s project on dog aging won the ERC Starting Grant in 2015.

The VOIMA project will become part of the Neuroethology of Communication Lab that Andics has founded at the ELTE Department of Ethology in 2017, after winning a five-year Lendület Grant from the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. The project builds extensively upon the unique experience and knowledge base of the Family Dog Project, a departmental program that has been running for over two decades, making several important discoveries and becoming a world-leading centre of dog research. VOIMA also builds upon the latest findings of the recently launched Family Pig Project at the same lab, where they study minipigs kept as companion animals. 

The VOIMA project, starting in 2021, will extend previous research lines by focusing on speech perception-related brain specialisations present in humans, but not in other primates. “The aim of the VOIMA project is to establish, whether these brain specializations for voice and speech perception reflect human-specific predispositions and are thus human-unique, or are they the consequence of rapid evolutionary adaptations or developmental accommodations of the ancient voice perception system to recent demands imposed by the presence of speech” — says Andics in the project summary. “I hypothesize that in general voice perception mechanisms are conserved across mammals, and provide a neuronal niche in which specializations for human voice and speech perception may arise also in non-humans. The case of companion animals provides an unparalleled model system to study the possible evolutionary and experiential effects of the presence of speech on the mammalian voice perception system.

Besides behavioural methods, Andics and his research team applies comparative cognitive neuroscientific methods, including functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) on dogs, developed at the Department of Ethology and the measurement of dog event-related potentials (ERPs), already successfully applied by the Neuroethology of Communication Lab. The VOIMA project opens the door to developing a new non-invasive brain imaging tool for dogs: high-density diffuse optical tomography (HD-DOT), which is based on functional near-infrared spectroscopy. This technique gives a unique opportunity to study the brain activity of unanaesthetised, untrained, freely moving (even newborn) animals.

For more details please visit the website of the Neuroethology of Communication Lab.