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Health Psychology

Lifecycle:1 Oct 1997 →  Today
Organisation profile:

Description research unit:

Biomedical variables generally explain only a part of a person’s experience of health and illness and in many instances a novel approach including social and psychological influences is needed. The KU Leuven Research Group “Health Psychology” aims at unravelling how psychological and somatic variables interact in health and disease from a psycho-bio-social perspective. Both fundamental and applied research is being conducted ion order to better to understand how interoceptive sensations are processed, and how cognitive, emotional and learning processes contribute to the initiation and maintenance of chronic somatic symptoms, illness and disability. Key words in our group are chronic pain, pain-related fear, breathlessness, respiratory psychophysiology and symptom perception. The prevailing research paradigm is the controlled experiment. Measurements often include self-reports, psychophysiological responses, and behavioural data.

Collaborative, interdisciplinary research is performed by a network of experienced researchers, clinicians and students who are fascinated by the behavioural science of health and disease. The ultimate goal is to apply the gathered knowledge in the assessment and early identification of those people at risk, and in the development of customized cognitive-behavioral interventions in the pursuit of prevention and treatment of chronic somatic complaints.

The Health Psychology Researcg Group is a dynamic and enthusiastic research group of about 25 researchers from different nationalities. There is collaboration with several clinical settings (University Hospital Leuven, ZOL Genk) and external institutions (e.g. IMEC). We also have collaborations with international labs (France, USA, Australia, Germany, Netherlands, Sweden and Luxemburg) and short visits in those labs are possible as well.

Interoception and psychophysiology

Lead: Prof. Ilse Van Diest

Contact information: Ilse.VanDiest@kuleuven.be


Under the supervision of Prof. Ilse Van Diest, several research lines include peripheral psychophysiological measurement techniques, including heart rate variability, beat-to-beat blood pressure recordings, respiration, startle blink or other EMG measures, and skin conductance. Together with a team of pre- and post-doctoral researchers, Prof. Van Diest has several ongoing research lines:

  • Interoceptive fear. We investigate how fear of breathlessness and fear of (visceral) pain change the perceptual sensitivity and response bias towards the perception of breathlessness or pain, respectively. The internee will be familiarized with both psychophysiological and behavioral measures, computational models and will gain expertise in data analyzing, programming and writing of a scientific paper.
  • Vagus nerve stimulation. We investigate the effects of VNS on several behavioral outcomes, including fear, extinction learning, executive functioning, and fatigue. We stimulate the vagus either electrically, either through deep breathing techniques.  We also plan to setup a clinical study to see how vagal nerve stimulation may accelerate treatment effects in patients.
  • Respiration and pain. In collaboration with medical researchers from Leuven and London, we investigate effects and mechanisms of slow deep breathing on pain.


Experience and treatment of breathlessness

Lead: Prof. Andreas von Leupoldt

Contact information: Andreas.vonLeupoldt@kuleuven.be


Prof. Andreas von Leupoldt examines the experience, neural processing and treatment of breathlessness. Breathlessness is the threatening cardinal symptom in many respiratory diseases such as asthma and COPD, but also in other clinical conditions such as anxiety and psychosomatic disorders. Recent research from our group has demonstrated that psychosocial aspects play a key role in the subjective experience of breathlessness regardless of underlying lung function. For example, negative emotional states and traits are often associated with greater experience of breathlessness. However, many questions regarding the interplay between breathlessness, its neural processing, its treatment and psychosocial aspects are yet not answered. In addition, similarities and differences of breathlessness with other aversive bodily symptoms (eg, pain) are not well understood. Ongoing studies in healthy individuals as well as in patients with respiratory disease include:

  • Influence of psychosocial factors on effects of a pulmonary rehabilitation program in patients with respiratory disease
  • The neural processing of breathlessness and other bodily symptoms using Evoked Potentials in the EEG
  • The impact of personality characteristics on the experience of breathlessness and other bodily symptoms

The methods spectrum varies from study to study. Some studies include questionnaire data in combination with clinical patient data as collected in rehabilitation settings (lung function, exercise capacity). Other laboratory studies experimentally evoke mild to moderate states of breathlessness or pain in healthy individuals and measure a few bodily parameters, emotional states and traits and/or neural measures as assessed with EEG-techniques.


Pain, action and interference

Lead: Prof. Johan Vlaeyen

Contact information: johannes.vlaeyen@kuleuven.be


Pain is a biologically salient stimulus, mostly of aversive nature, that signals a threat to the integrity of the body, and interrupts ongoing activities. Acute pain usually resolves within hours or days. Chronic pain, per definition, persists for longer periods of time, although it may fluctuate and there can be intermittent pain-free episodes. Pain also interrupts ongoing activities and may compromise prospective memory for the interrupted tasks. Research in our lab has also shown that fear of pain, and the consequent avoidance behavior plays a key role in the transition from an acute pain episode to a chronic pain state, but the exact mechanisms still need to be uncovered. Therefore, we are currently testing the role of associative learning and the acquisition, generalization and extinction of pain-related fear, and the effects of such learning on pain perception, psychophysiological reactivity and avoidance behavior. We also are testing whether the unpredictability of pain modulates its perception. Usually, fear of pain takes place in a social context, and the expression of pain seems influenced by the characteristics of that context. For example, we showed that in a threatening social context, individuals show less painful expression despite increased pain, as compared to a non-threatening social context. Finally, we are examining whether the findings on pain generalise to other perceptual modalities such as tinnitus (ringing in the ears). Ongoing research includes:

  • Painful interruptions and the effects on prospective memory and consequent task performance.
  • Acquisition, generalization and extinction of pain-related avoidance behavior using a 3 degrees-of-freedom robotic arm.
  • The role of pain unpredictability on pain perception and perceptual discrimination of pain cues.
  • Pain in context: the effects of social context on pain-related fear and pain expression.
  • The sound of silence:Tinnitus aurium elicited in an anechoic room

Most studies are conducted in the laboratory with healthy participants who are exposed to brief mild to moderate painful (or auditory) stimuli. Experimental manipulations are related to the primary research question, and can involve threat, interruptions, predictability, the presence of an observer etc. Typical dependent variables are pain intensity, pain sensitivity, fear of pain, eye blink startle reflex, facial expressions, and various reaction times. In collaboration with TRACE, the centre for translational psychological research, there are also possibilities top conduct experimental studies in patients with chronic pain at the ZOL hospital Genk (East Belgium).

Keywords:Health Psychology
Disciplines:Public health care, Public health sciences, Public health services, Biological and physiological psychology, General psychology, Other psychology and cognitive sciences