First ERC Synergy Grant for KU Leuven

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Rufin Vogels | © KU Leuven - Rob Stevens
Rufin Vogels | © KU Leuven - Rob Stevens

The European Research Council (ERC) has awarded its Synergy Grants. Neuroscientist Rufin Vogels is the first researcher at KU Leuven to receive one. Together with colleagues in Tübingen and Maastricht, he has secured over € 8 million.

ERC Synergy Grants provide funding to teams of two to four Principal Investigators (PIs). The grants are awarded for a period of five to six years and may be worth up to € 10 million.  

The main assessment criterion for the grant applications is the excellence of both the project and the researcher. Another criterion is the synergy between the different teams, which is assessed by means of an interview, among other things. The applications that pass the quality threshold are ranked on the basis of their score, and only the highest-ranked proposals get funding. 


Congratulations on your ERC Synergy Grant! How did you react to the news? 

Rufin Vogels: "I wasn’t expecting it at all! When you apply for this type of grant, the competition is fierce and success rates are low, so I’m thrilled that our project was selected. It’s wonderful news." 

You will receive over € 8 million. What is the project going to be about? 

Vogels: "We want to find out how the brain interprets body signals for non-verbal communication, which may be used to express emotions, among other things. Facial expressions are the most obvious example of this type of communication, but our focus will be on body posture and actions. Are you leaning towards someone or rather recoiling? Do you greet someone with a handshake? These are all ways in which we convey social messages with our body. We want to gain a better understanding of how our brain analyses these messages and what the underlying computational processes are."  

"We will use virtual reality animations, among other things, and then we’ll examine how the brain processes these stimuli. Which brain areas are involved, and how do they interact? We will also develop new methods of analysis and systems based on artificial intelligence. This translational project relies on intensive interaction between experiments and modelling."

Your project comprises fundamental research. What are the potential long-term applications? 

Vogels: "We hope to be able to contribute to the development of new AI and virtual reality systems to simulate and identify different postures. That may be useful for smart security cameras, for instance. Other applications include avatars that communicate like human beings, or robots that can interpret and predict body language, allowing them to work with human beings." 

"We’re also thinking of important clinical applications. For one thing, you could use virtual reality to train people with communication disorders. Many people on the autism spectrum, for instance, struggle with the interpretation of body language; they could benefit from virtual reality exercises." 

The researchers have received an ERC Synergy Grant worth € 8,309,115 for the project "RELEVANCE: How body relevance drives brain organisation." The five-year project is a collaboration between KU Leuven (Rufin Vogels, who is the corresponding PI), Eberhard Karls Universität Tübingen (Martin Giese), and Maastricht University (Beatrice de Gelder).

Katrien Bollen 


  • Awards and distinctions
  • Biomedical Sciences Group
  • Department of Neurosciences

    The European Research Council (ERC) funds ground-breaking and innovative projects by Europe’s finest researchers through five types of grant:

    Starting Grants

  • up to ¤1.5 million for 5 years
  • for promising early-career researchers with 2 to 7 years of post-PhD experience
  • up to ¤2 million for 5 years
  • for excellent researchers with 7 to 12 years of post-PhD experience
  • up to ¤2.5 million for 5 years
  • for established researchers with a considerable academic track record
  • up to ¤10 million for 6 years

  • for groups of 2 to 4 Principal Investigators

  • ERC GRANT HOLDERs at KU leuven