PhD Program in Neural and Cognitive Sciences | NCS




Domenico Calarco
Supervisor: Lisa Di Blas (DSV)
Co-supervisor: Donatella Ferrante (DSV)
Yeraldin Chiquinquira Castillo De Spelorzi
Supervisor: Walter Gerbino (DSV)
Co-supervisor: Tiziano Agostini (DSV)
Giovanni Del Ben
Supervisor: Paolo Manganotti (University Hospital of Trieste)
Co-supervisor: Piero Paolo Battaglini (DSV)
Andrea Dissegna
Supervisor: Cinzia Chiandetti (DSV)
Co-supervisor: Massimo Turatto (CIMeC)
Martina Fontana 
Supervisor: Maria Chiara Passolunghi (DSV)
Co-supervisor: Sandra Pellizzoni (DSV)
Marija Živković
Supervisor: Maria Chiara Passolunghi (DSV)
Co-supervisor: Irene Mammarella (University of Padova)




Social-cognitive personality theories and assessment methods

Developed within the social-cognitive perspective and built on the “Cognitive-Affective Personality System” (CAPS) and “Knowledge and Appraisal Personality Architecture” (KAPA) theoretical frameworks, the present research project is aimed at studying the relationships between different cognitive-affective self-relevant knowledge structures and multiple appraisal processes by including a) the idiographic assessment of distinct cognitive-affective knowledge structures, b) the assessment of the subjective relevance of those knowledge structures in different situations and c) the assessment of multiple appraisals concerning the same situational contexts. Starting from the traditional variables studied in the KAPA framework (e.g., self-schemata knowledge structures and self-efficacy appraisals), the project is designed so as to further empirically explore the role of a wider set of cognitive-affective units, including both motivational knowledge structures (e.g., goals) and different appraisal components proposed by appraisal theories (e.g., motivational relevance), in the functioning of the personality system. The project is developed with a focus on within-person research designs and considering a combination of idiographic (e.g., free-response tasks; idiographically tailored questionnaires) and nomothetic (e.g., standardized questionnaires; standardized situational scenarios) methods of personality assessment. The main general hypothesis would be that within-person appraisal patterns could vary across different situations as a function of the patterns of subjectvie situational relevance of different schematic knowledge structures. In addition, complex (i.e., reciprocal, moderated, and mediated) patterns of associations between knowledge structures and appraisals as well as among self-relevant appraisals would be expected.

Candidate: Domenico Calarco



Molecular-genetic study of autism spectrum disorders and phenotypes correlations

Autism spectrum disorders (ASDs), one of the most common childhood neurodevelopmental disorders (NDDs), is diagnosed in 1 of every 68 children. ASDs are a group of neurodevelopmental abnormalities that begin in early childhood and are characterized by impairments in social interaction and communication, as well as repetitive behaviours and restricted interests. The complex genetic etiology of autism reveals its phenotypic variability, supporting the contemporary consensus that autism is a collection of etiologically distinctive disorders that cause a consistently recognizable phenotype. De novo mutations, inherited variation, and environmental factors have all been linked to autism development. Familiar genetic disorders (ex. Fragile X syndrome) appear in approximately 10% of autism cases. There is a strong genetic basis underlying ASDs that is highly heterogeneous; however, multiple studies have highlighted the involvement of key processes, including neurogenesis, neurite growth, synaptogenesis and synaptic plasticity in the pathophysiology of neurodevelopmental disorders. ASDs diagnosis is currently based on clinical observations and behavioural evaluations exclusively, without any biological determination. In the present PhD project, to develop a molecular approach for diagnosis of ASDs, I will perform a series of genetic analysis to characterize probands with non-syndromic autism spectrum disorders, The main molecular genetics methods of analysis will be based on Fragile X, SNP-Array, target Next Generation Sequencing and Whole Exome Sequencing technologies. The genetics data will be analyzed searching for possible causative genetics alterations and for possible new phenotype - genotype correlations. The overall study will contribute enriching our acknowledgment on the basis of genetic of ASDs.

Candidate: Yeraldin Chiquinquira Castillo de Spelorzi



The neurophysiology of persistent developmental stuttering in adulthood

The aim of this PhD project is to further explore and describe the neural substrate that underlies the neurophysiology of persistent developmental stuttering in adulthood. Over the years several studies have investigated the neuroanatomical and neurophysiological correlates of developmental stuttering both in children and adults however its exact physiopathology is still not fully clear. The final objective of the present research project is trying to identify, a series of “neural markers” that could be useful to better clarify the neurology of this incompletely understood motor-speech disorder. This aim will be obtained thanks to the employment of non-invasive neurophysiologic and neurostimulation techniques to reach a series of milestones that still today represent unknown aspects of this pathology. These include the characterization of the corticospinal motor excitability during voluntary movement preparation to further explore the cortical mechanisms of movement generation and motor control in this disorder, the better definition of the audio-motor integration to understand the auditory influence on motor excitability and the study of the possible involvement of the mirror neuron system in stuttering, to investigate the influence of visual feedback on the motor system of people who stutter. Overall the results of the present project could be useful not only to deepen the aetiology of persistent developmental stuttering in adulthood but more importantly to define more effective and focused rehabilitative treatments for people who stutter.

Candidate: Giovanni Del Ben
Habituation and the prevision-error system

How do we learn to ignore irrelevant information that is repeatedly encountered? The present project aims to approach this issue by studying a basic form of learning, i.e., habituation.

Adopting a comparative perspective, with special reference to the domestic chick’s learning abilities, my PhD project addresses unconventional hypotheses such as the associative nature of habituation, the age-related changes in the organisms’ learning ability and, more generally, the link between habituation and cognition and emotion.         

Finally, particular attention is devoted to investigating “proactivity” in the animals’ brain. Recent prevision-error models suggest that the brain continuously generates predictions that anticipate future events. We challenge this hypothesis with a double purpose: to test whether the ability to predict stimulus occurrence represents a shared trait among species; to integrate classical models of habituation with modern prevision-error models.

Candidate: Andrea Dissegna


Inhibitory processes in Down syndrome: a developmental perspective

Previous studies aimed to investigate inhibition in individuals with Down Syndrome (DS) reported contradictory results (Borella et al., 2013; Carney et al., 2013). According to several theorists, inhibition may have a multicomponential nature (Diamond, 2013; Nigg, 2000). Recently, two different components have been identified in preschool age: response inhibition, the capacity to suppress prepotent but inappropriate responses, and interference suppression, the ability to filter out irrelevant information (Gandolfi et al., 2014).

This PhD project aims to investigate inhibition in individuals with DS with different inhibitory tasks tapping both response inhibition and interference suppression. Specifically, the developmental trajectories of those two inhibitory domains in people with DS will be examined. Moreover, it will be investigated the adaptability of a theoretical inhibition model (Gandolfi et al., 2014) tested on typically developing children to a DS developing group, considering specific characteristic of DS people. Zealazo & Müller (2002) have made a distinction between the development of relatively hot emotional aspects of EF and the development of more purely cool cognitive aspects. Hot aspects are required in situations that involve the regulation of affect and motivation and are elicited in situations where there is motivational involvement, such as when a reward is expected. Therefore the second purpose of this project is to consider also hot emotional aspects, including some inhibitory tasks that measure hot aspects (e.g. delay of gratification). The final aim is to develop and test a specific training to improve both hot and cool inhibitory capability in children with DS.

The importance of studying inhibitory processes and of developing specific inhibitory training for people with DS aims to allow them to improve a greater self-regulating ability and to develop their best autonomy in everyday life.

Candidate: Martina Fontana
Cognitive processes and emotional characteristics in children with mathematics anxiety nd anxiety disorders

Ashcraft (2002) defines mathematic anxiety (MA) as " a feeling of tension, apprehension, or fear that interferes with math performance" and suggested that individuals with high MA avoid situations in which they have to perform mathematical calculations.

General anxiety (GA) is not related to a specific situation or activity, but rather refers to an individual’s general disposition to worry about events, behavioral personal abilities.

Regarding anxiety, theories on processing efficiency and attentional control suggest an important role of working memory in regulating cognitive performances (Eysenck & Calvo, 1992; Richards & Gross, 2000; Eysenck et al., 2007). According to processing efficiency theory and attentional control theory (ACT), worrying (which is the cognitive component of anxiety) is believed to demand processing competence, thereby reducing the working memory capacity available for other tasks (Eysenck & Calvo,1992; Ashcraft & Kirk, 2001; Derakshan & Eysenck, 2009; Eysenck & Derakshan, 2011). A large body of literature has extensively studied the role of domain-general cognitive processes involved in mathematics achievement. Research on arithmetic achievement has considered several cognitive mechanisms, but particular attention has been drawn to the role of WM and executive functions (see Raghubar, Barnes, & Hecht, 2010 for a review). However, at now the underlying cognitive processes involved in MA and GA is still not clear and further evidence is needed.

In the present project, we, therefore, aimed to disentangle the differences between low math performance due to a specific MA and low proficiency in arithmetic due to a specific mathematics disorder, by comparing these two groups both with children suffering from general anxiety and with typically developing. In particular, we will study: a) similarities and differences between MA and GA; b) the underlying cognitive processes in these groups compared to typically developing; c) the efficacy of different kinds of training.

Candidate: Marija Živković


Peer-reviewed articles




Busan P, Del Ben G, Tantone A, Halaj L, Bernardini S, Natarelli G, Manganotti P, Battaglini PP. Effect of muscular activation on surrounding motor networks in developmental stuttering: A TMS study. Brain Lang. 2020 Jun;205 104774. doi:10.1016/j.bandl.2020.104774. PMID: 32135384.

Dissegna A, Caputi A, Chiandetti C (2020). Long-lasting generalization triggered by a single trial event in the invasive crayfish Procambarus clarkii. Journal of Experimental Biology, 223.





Turatto, M., Dissegna, A., Chiandetti, C. (2019). Context learning before birth: Evidence from the chick embryo. Biology Letters, 15(7) 20190104





Busan, P., Del Ben, G., Roberta Russo, L., Bernardini, S., Natarelli, G., Arcara, G., Manganotti, P., Paolo Battaglini, P. (2018). Stuttering as a matter of delay in neural activation: a combined TMS/EEG study, Clinical Neurophysiology, doi:

Chiandetti, C., Dissegna, A., & Turatto, M. (2018). Rapid plasticity attenuation soon after birth revealed by habituation in newborn chicks. Developmental psychobiology, 60(4), 440-448.

Dissegna, A., Turatto, M., & Chiandetti, C. (2018) Short-term memory in habituation and dishabituation of newborn chicks’ freezing response. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Animal Learning and Cognition, 44(4), 441-446. 

Traverso, L., Fontana, M., Usai, M. C., & Passolunghi, M. C. (2018). Response Inhibition and Interference Suppression in Individuals With Down Syndrome Compared to Typically Developing Children. Frontiers in Psychology,  9:660. DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2018.00660  








Passolunghi, M. C., Živković, M., & Pellizzoni, S. (2019). MATHEMATICS ANXIETY AND WORKING MEMORY. Mathematics Anxiety: What Is Known, and What is Still Missing, Routledge, London, 103.








Živković, M., Pellizzoni, S., Mammarella, I.C., & Passolunghi, M.C. (2019). The influence of working memory, anxiety and stereotypes on math achievement in students of 3rd and 5th grade of primary school. The 19th European Conference of Developmental Psychology, Athens.


Živković, M., Pellizzoni, S., & Passolunghi, M.C. (2019). The impact of emotional, cognitive factors and stereotypes on math achievement in students of primary school. The 1st SRLD Conference, Padova.




Busan, P., Del Ben, G., Formaggio, E., Bernardini, S., Natarelli, G., Arcara, G., Manganotti, P., Battaglini, P.P.B., (2018). Neural dynamics in persistent developmental stuttering: a suggestion for innovative treatments?. Oral communication at 3rd International Conference on Stuttering (I.C.O.S.) Roma, IT. 

Chiandetti, C. & Dissegna, A. (2018). Ontogenesis and associative nature of habituation in chicks. Oral presentation at Avian Cognitive Neuroscience, University of Bochum, Bochum, Germany.

Chiandetti, C., Dissegna, A., Nakajima, R., & Fiorito, G. (2018). Subverting the naïve (mis)perception of animal intelligence: From the scala naturae to the Darwinian tree via a simple survey. Poster presented at ECVP18, European Conference on Visual Perception 2018, University of Trieste, Trieste, Italy.

Del Ben, G., Tantone, A., Halaj, L., Bernardini, S., Natarelli, G., Manganotti, P., Battaglini, P.P.B., Busan, P., (2018). Muscular interplay in persistent developmental stuttering: a Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation study. Oral communication at 3rd International Conference on Stuttering (I.C.O.S.) Roma, IT.

Dissegna, A., Turatto, M., & Chiandetti, C. (2018). Short-term memory mechanisms of habituation in the domestic chick (Gallus gallus). In: Anja Podlesek (ed.), 13th Alps-Adria Psychology Conference: Book of abstracts. Oral presentation at AAPC18, Alps-Adria Psychology Conference 2018, University of Ljubljana, Ljubljana, Slovenia. Horizons of Psychology, 27, 96.

Dissegna, A., Turatto, M., & Chiandetti, C. (2018). Rapid plasticity attenuation after birth revealed by habituation in chicks. Oral presentation at CSA17, Cognitive Science Arena 2017, Bozen University, Bolzano, Italy.

Dissegna, A., Turatto, M., & Chiandetti, C. (2018). Avian hatching as a strategy to test context-specific habituation. Poster presented at ECVP18, European Conference on Visual Perception 2018, University of Trieste, Trieste, Italy.

Živković, M., Martinčić, R., Mammarella, I.C., Pellizzoni, S., Passolunghi, M.C. (2018). Influenza della memoria di lavoro, dell'ansia (generale e specifica per la matematica) e degli stereotipi di genere in bambini di terza e quinta classe della scuola primaria. XXVII Congresso Nazionale AIRIPA.




Dissegna, A., Turatto, M., Penolazzi, B., Chiandetti, C. (2017). Pre and post hatching associative habituation in chicks. Poster presented at Ten years of the Mind/Brain Sciences, University of Trento, Trento, Italy.