The Research Group Health Psychology at KU Leuven (https://ppw.kuleuven.be/ogp/generalinformation) aims at unraveling how psychological and somatic variables interact in health and disease from a biopsychosocial perspective. Both fundamental and applied research is being conducted to understand how bodily sensations such as breathlessness are psycho(physio)logically processed and how neural, emotional and social processes contribute to the initiation and maintenance of chronic somatic symptoms, illness and disability. The prevailing research paradigm is the controlled experiment. Measurements include self-reports, psychophysiological/neural responses, clinical and behavioral data. Collaborative, interdisciplinary research is performed by a network of experienced researchers, clinicians and students including many (inter)national collaborations. The ultimate goal is to apply the gathered knowledge in the assessment and early identification of those individuals at risk, and in the development of customized cognitive-behavioral interventions in the pursuit of prevention and treatment of chronic somatic complaints.
The present project is a close collaboration with the Research Group Cardiovascular and Respiratory Rehabilitation (https://gbiomed.kuleuven.be/english/research/50000743/cvrrg/crrrg) and the Laboratory of Respiratory Diseases and Thoracic Surgery (BREATHE) (https://www.kuleuven.be/onderzoek/portaal/#/team/50000633?hl=en&lang=en) at KU Leuven. Both groups have longstanding expertise in the clinical characterization and medical follow-up of patients with respiratory disease. In multidisciplinary collaborations these groups are focusing on the effects of pharmacological and non-pharmacological interventions to alter the course of lung disease. Their interest in the consequences of physical inactivity and setting up interventions to successfully enhance physical activity as well as their interest to understand breathlessness from a physiological angle are of particular relevance to the present project.
Breathlessness (dyspnea) is the threatening cardinal symptom in many prevalent respiratory diseases such as COPD and asthma, but also in other diseases including cancer, cardiac, neuromuscular, psychiatric and psychosomatic illnesses. Breathlessness often leads to avoidance of physical activity and is associated with severe disability as well as significant reductions in quality of life in millions of patients worldwide. In addition, the accurate perception of breathlessness by the patient is very important for successful (self-)management because it motivates patients to initiate appropriate health behaviour such as seeking medical (self-)treatment timely and in adequate doses. Both, under-perception and over-perception of breathlessness were shown to be related to increased morbidity. The origins of breathlessness in patients with COPD and asthma are in the physiology underlying the disease process, but its perception and induced activity limitation are strongly influenced by psychological, neural and other processes integrating the physiology into patients’ subjective perception. Unfortunately, little is knownon the interrelationships between these different processes.
This 3-year multidisciplinary research project,funded by the Research Foundation - Flanders (FWO), will examine the impact of neural and psychological mechanisms on the perception of breathlessness in healthy individuals and in patients with respiratory disease (e.g., COPD, asthma) as well as anxiety. Moreover, respective interrelations of these mechanisms with physical activity and other patient characteristics will be studied. The PhD student will carry out several studies that aim to assess these aspects in a rehabilitation context as well as in laboratory settings. A major focus is the assessment of neural activation patterns related to breathing as measured by evoked potentials in the EEG (128-channel EEG system). Other outcome measures will include exercise tests, physical activity measures, self-reports, questionnaires and peripheral psychophysiological responses (e.g., breathing patterns). Apart from the acquisition and statistical analysis of the data, the PhD student will also be responsible for the scientific reporting of the results in international peer-reviewed journals and at scientific conferences. The conducted line of experimental studies will result in a PhD thesis that will be defended by the end of the research project (supervisors: Prof. Andreas von Leupoldt, Prof. Thierry Troosters, Prof. Wim Janssens). Other academic duties (such as teaching assistance, administration, lab work and public service) are limited. When desired a small appointment in the University Hospitals Leuven can be foreseen in the team of pulmonary rehabilitation to develop relevant clinical skills. The candidate will work closely with other members of the research groups who are working on related research questions.