The details of the available projects for the Neuroscience & Mental Health theme are outlined on this page. You can find other projects on the Infection, Immunity, Antimicrobial Resistance & Repair and Population Health Sciences pages. A full list of our available projects can be downloaded below.

GW4 BioMed2 MRC DTP – Full list of available projects 2023-24

For full project descriptions, including contact details for the lead supervisor, click the download link on the project title.

Applications to the GW4 BioMed2 MRC DTP will be accepted via this online form until 5pm on Wednesday, 2nd November 2022. For guidance on the application criteria and decision timeline, please see the information here.


All too (un)predictable? The effect of environmental predictability and sensory sensitivities on sleep problems in autism

Sensory hyper-sensitivity and sleep problems are common in autistic children. This project aims to investigate the role of environmental predictability and sensory sensitivities in sleep problems in both neurotypical and autistic pre-schoolers, via an online, large-scale community sample and a pilot intervention study in autistic pre-schoolers. The PhD includes advanced methods training in eye-tracking and structural equation modelling.

Lead Supervisor: Dr Rachael Bedford
Institution: Bath

Effects of cannabis on the adolescent brain and epigenetic aging

Adolescence is a critical neurodevelopmental period which may confer greater vulnerability to the harmful effects of cannabis. To test this hypothesis, you will apply a range of advanced methods (structural MRI, diffusion MRI, brain aging, epigenetic aging) to a recently completed longitudinal study. You will work with young people to create a novel video resource for drugs education and to encourage youth engagement with science.

Lead Supervisor: Dr Tom Freeman
Institution: Bath

Advanced detection of synthetic cannabinoids used in prisons in the South West (GW4) region

Drug use can have serious neuronal effects leading to major mental health issues. We will apply advanced detection methods to synthetic cannabinoid receptor agonists (Spice) in an interdisciplinary project assaying samples related to drug use in the SW England. We will then research mental health and cognitive consequences of Spice use in prisons in the South West, using outcomes data to track how this predicts social and psychological functioning following release

Lead Supervisor: Prof Stephen Husbands
Institution: Bath

Integrating MRI network analysis and genomics to refine risk prediction in Alzheimer’s disease

Alzheimer’s disease has a significant heritable component, yet we know little about this genetic risk affects the living human brain. The project will incorporate bioinformatic approaches using neuroimaging, genomic and clinical health record data to understand why we see increased brain cell death in individuals with heightened genetic for Alzheimer’s disease. 

Lead Supervisor: Dr Thomas Lancaster
Institution: Bath

Being in a child shoes: Assessing changes in parents’ empathy and perspective-taking by using a combination of virtual reality and EEG methods

Perspective-taking (cognitive awareness of another’s state) and empathy (emotional/affective response) are important for sensitive and constructive parenting. However, these constructs are difficult to induce and measure and their underlying brain mechanisms during parenting remain unclear. This project will use a combination of virtual reality, electroencephalogram (EEG) and self-report measures to examine changes in parents’ empathy to inform future interventions.

Lead Supervisor: Dr Karin Petrini
Institution: Bath

Turn it off and on again – exploiting brain hibernation circuits to improve outcomes in critical illness

Torpor (a brief hibernation) is a remarkable phenomenon exhibited by many animals. It is characterised by extreme physiology including lowered body temperature and heart rate, and immune modulation. As a protective state, torpor is of interest for many clinical and space medicine applications. This project will use mice to characterise the brain circuits that generate each physiological component of torpor to identify potential targets for human medicine and beyond.

Lead Supervisor: Dr Mike Ambler
Institution: Bristol

The interplay between genetics and brain development in schizophrenia

Schizophrenia is a severe neurodevelopmental psychiatric disorder with high heritability, but we don’t know how genetic variation leads to abnormal maturation of brain function. Disruption of the SETD1A gene is linked to elevated schizophrenia risk. In this project, we will investigate the cortical development of a mouse model of SETD1A deficiency using molecular, electrophysiological, imaging and behavioural techniques to link aberrant neurobiology to pathology.

Lead Supervisor: Dr Michael Ashby
Institution: Bristol

An investigation of how medical interventions to lower intracranial pressure influence cerebrospinal fluid dynamics, cerebral vasculature and eating behaviour and their impact on headache, vision, and quality of life

Raised intracranial pressure (ICP) can be sight-threatening. Caused by increased brain, blood or cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) volumes, raised ICP impairs vision from optic nerve swelling. In this cross-disciplinary project, we will use state-of-the-art imaging, clinical, psychological, and behavioural tools to assess medical treatments of raised ICP and their impacts on CSF dynamics, cerebral vasculature, headache, vision, quality of life and eating behaviour. 

Lead Supervisor: Dr Denize Atan
Institution: Bristol

Early predictors of cognition in children cooled for neonatal hypoxic-ischaemic encephalopathy

Cooling infants after birth asphyxia reduces death and cerebral palsy however around 1/3 of cooled infants have cognitive impairment at school-age.  Early markers of later cognitive performance are needed for targeted early interventions. This study will determine relations between early movement and later cognition and examine the association of serial EEG with early movement and early social cognitive ability in a prospective cohort of cooled infants.

Lead Supervisor: Dr Ela Chakkarapani
Institution: Bristol

Sex differences in chronic pain; A role for noradrenaline in cognitive flexibility

Chronic pain is much commoner in women; this studentship will investigate whether differences in brain noradrenergic signalling underpin the sex differences. Using cutting edge methods for recording and manipulating neurons in rodents, you will investigate the role of noradrenaline in cognitive and behavioural flexibility in chronic pain. The student will benefit from industry interactions to enable translation to the human condition. 

Lead Supervisor: Dr Robert Drake
Institution: Bristol

Understanding how stress affects food-related action choices at the behavioural and neural level to develop cognitive training and neurostimulation treatments for binge eating disorder

Binge eating disorder (BED) causes out-of-control eating episodes that are commonly preceded by stress. This project sets out to understand how neural activity involved in controlling food-related action choices is dysregulated in BED, and how this may be further affected by stress. We will use a novel task to train people with BED to flexibly switch between three distinct food-triggered actions and test whether neurostimulation can facilitate their learning.

Lead Supervisor: Dr Petra Fischer
Institution: Bristol

Intergenerational transmission of self-harm thoughts and behaviors

This interdisciplinary PhD project will provide training in epidemiology, genetics, and advanced longitudinal methods. Data from two cohorts will be used to i) investigate the association between parent and child self-harm thoughts and behaviors ii) identify mediators and moderators that might inform preventative interventions and iii) explore the extent to which transmission is driven by shared genetic effects

Lead Supervisor: Dr Becky Mars
Institution: Bristol

Linking neuronal function to mental health: How genetic risk factors impair cognitive flexibility and neural plasticity in psychiatric disorders

Genetic risk factors for psychiatric disorders are clustered around genes that regulate synaptic function and adaptation, indicating common disrupted biological processes. We have revealed how one of these genes (Dlg2) perturbs a core feature of synaptic signalling. In this project, we will uncover how this leads to abnormal cognition by directly measuring neuronal adaptations during tasks demanding cognitive flexibility, and test mechanisms to rescue cognition.

Lead Supervisor: Prof Jack Mellor
Institution: Bristol

Run for your life: Leveraging exercise to protect against dementia

Regular physical exercise is beneficial for health and longevity. As we age, many people adopt a sedentary lifestyle which can accelerate decline in brain activity, cognition, and body clock rhythms such as sleep.  Incorporating daily regular exercise could promote  physical and mental well-being and this project will investigate if and how timed voluntary exercise protects against decline in brain and body clock function in a mouse model of Alzheimer’s disease. 

Lead Supervisor: Prof Hugh Piggins
Institution: Bristol

Does common genetic risk for schizophrenia shape brain anatomy and function?

Despite the assumption that common risk alleles for schizophrenia trigger brain changes that explain clinical symptoms, this association has not been clearly demonstrated. The lack of specificity in genomic approaches and the use of sub-optimal brain phenotypes have hindered progress. This project aims to implement innovative imaging and analytical methods to address this conundrum, potentially leading to improved diagnosis and new targets for treatment development.

Lead Supervisor: Dr Xavier Caseras
Institution: Cardiff

Using a new translational in vivo model to understand the neurobiology underlying ADHD subtypes

In mice and humans loss-of-function of the steroid sulfatase (STS) enzyme results in inattention but enhanced motor response inhibition; we aim to understand the neurobiology underlying this dissociation using a new mouse model. The project will develop behavioural neuroscience research skills, will have direct clinical relevance to X-linked ichthyosis (STS deficiency), and will signpost mechanisms associated with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder subtypes.  

Lead Supervisor: Dr William Davies
Institution: Cardiff

When we’re too afraid to move: Using virtual reality and brain stimulation to understand excessively cautious walking in older adults

Many older people become fearful of falling and develop excessive postural stiffening and cautious movement patterns. Paradoxically, this can serve to increase fall risk. This problem is thought to originate within the motor cortex through deficient intracortical inhibition. This studentship will explore this topic using state-of-the-art techniques including transcranial magnetic stimulation and virtual reality in older adults and people with Parkinson’s disease

Lead Supervisor: Dr Jennifer Davies
Institution: Cardiff

Untangling neurodegeneration and ageing components of neuroinflammatory disorders

Numerous genome-wide association studies (GWAS) show a strong, but poorly understood neuroinflammatory component to most neurological diseases. This project will leverage such GWAS data from several neurological and inflammatory conditions to determine the relationships between immune system genes and underlying neurological pathologies and in addition to understanding the genetic influence of aging-dependent inflammatory changes.

Lead Supervisor: Prof Valentina Escott-Price
Institution: Cardiff

Quantifying the molecular response to memory retrieval and its genetic association with schizophrenia

Deficits in the molecular mechanisms of memory are thought to be central to the psychiatric pathology associated with schizophrenia. New methods now allow us to explore deeper into the molecular dynamics of memory and refine our understanding of the impacts from schizophrenia. This interdisciplinary project aims to profile neuronal gene expression required for memory retrieval and extinction, and determine the molecular pathways of relevance to schizophrenia.

Lead Supervisor: Prof Jeremy Hall
Institution: Cardiff

A combined in vitro and in silico molecular analysis of CHD8 gene-mediated risk for ASD

This project investigates how risk for autism may arise due to changes in high-level, 3-dimensional structure of DNA in cell nucleus. It focuses on the gene CHD8, mutants of which are strongly associated with risk for autism. It will use a combination of Next-Generation Sequencing, human iPSC biology and computational analysis to establish how CHD8 may increase risk for autism via altered gene expression due to changes in genome architecture. 

Lead Supervisor: Prof Adrian Harwood
Institution: Cardiff

How does the schizophrenia candidate gene Sp4 influences transcription during neurodevelopment?

Common and rare variants in the gene encoding the neuronal transcription factor Sp4 have been linked to schizophrenia. This project explores how those variants alter the ability of Sp4 to regulate the activity of the genome. The student will gain a range of sophisticated in vivo, molecular biology, and bioinformatic techniques and apply these in order unravel the biology that links Sp4 to brain function, and identify what goes wrong in schizophrenia.

Lead Supervisor: Prof Anthony Isles
Institution: Cardiff

What goes up must come down? Using digital technology to understand the dynamic nature of mood in bipolar disorder

People with bipolar disorder (BD) experience disabling episodes of high and low mood, but how mood fluctuates between episodes could provide key insights into the condition. This project will use long-term digital mood-monitoring data from the largest sample of people with BD in the world. The student will learn cutting-edge statistical methods to test if dynamic measures of mood are associated with clinical outcomes and genetic risk factors in people with BD.

Lead Supervisor: Dr Katie Lewis
Institution: Cardiff

Creating a nanoparticle drug delivery system for repurposing therapeutics against brain cancers

Some brain cancers cannot be surgically removed, and many potent therapeutics cannot reach the tumour site. This project aims to overcome these hurdles by utilizing a recently developed multifunctional nanoparticle drug delivery system that can be injected directly into tumours. With state-of-the-art equipment and the supervision of a neurosurgeon, this project will explore how a range of promising drugs can be repurposed to attack brain tumours from within.  

Lead Supervisor: Dr Ben Newland
Institution: Cardiff

The role of neural stem cells and neurogenesis in molecular mechanisms of anti-obesity therapeutics

We will investigate the role of neural stem cells and neurons in energy homeostasis. We will determine how diet affects neural stem cells, neurons and glia in the hypothalamus, a part of the brain which regulates basic physiological functions such as appetite. This project will provide advanced training in methods ranging from electrophysiology, calcium imaging, time-lapse live-cell imaging, and single-cell RNA sequencing used in academia and industry.

Lead Supervisor: Dr David Petrik
Institution: Cardiff

Investigating novel types of childhood irritability (emotional dysregulation) using a developmental and genetic approach

Severe childhood irritability is a common symptom across many mental health disorders and a common reason for mental health service referral. It is uncertain if irritability is a behavioural, neurodevelopmental or mood problem. This PhD will use longitudinal, population cohorts to examine irritability across development and test the hypothesis that there are different types of irritability, differentiated by developmental course, genetic and environmental aetiology.

Lead Supervisor: Dr Lucy Riglin
Institution: Cardiff

The contribution of mitochondrial dysfunction to Alzheimer’s disease

Alzheimer’s disease (AD) is associated with increased oxidative stress and mitochondrial dysfunction in the brain. The Redox system that helps detoxify neurons is decreased in  AD patients and likely contributes to symptoms and neurodegeneration. The PhD student will manipulate Redox and mitochondrial regulating genes in Drosophila and iPSC neuron models of AD to find new potential therapeutic targets.

Lead Supervisor: Dr Gaynor Ann Smith
Institution: Cardiff

Linking microRNA dynamics to mental health: Assessing the contribution of brain expressed miRNAs to the increased risk for psychiatric disorder in 22q11.2DS subjects

A large proportion of people with 22q11.2DS, a syndrome where a segment of DNA and associated genes are missing from chromosome 22, will fall ill with some form of psychiatric disorder. We suspect this increased risk for psychopathology is due to abnormalities in the brain metabolism of microRNAs. We will test this idea using patient-derived human neurons in partnership with Takeda who will provide support and a training secondment at the company in Tokyo, Japan. 

Lead Supervisor: Prof Lawrence Wilkinson
Institution: Cardiff

Social modifiers of molecular ageing across the brain

Social isolation increases the risk of dementia and cognitive decline in older individuals. But how social isolation alters the pace of ageing in the brain remains elusive. This project will quantify the social contributions to molecular ageing across brain regions in a unique model system. In doing so, we will generate insights into the multifaceted process of ageing in the brain, and the social contributions to ageing in areas linked to human cognitive health.

Lead Supervisor: Prof Lauren Brent
Institution: Exeter

How do schizophrenia risk variants influence the local synaptic translatome?

To improve treatments for schizophrenia there is a need to better understand the biology impacted by genetic mutations conferring risk to the disorder. This project will aim to investigate the effects of high-risk genetic variants on synapses and their molecular constituents. We will make use of cell-specific RNA sequencing and large-scale patient genomic data to quantify these effects and predict biological vulnerability in the brain. 

Lead Supervisor: Dr Nicholas Clifton
Institution: Exeter

Investigating the role of DNA methylation in C9ORF72 amyotrophic lateral sclerosis

During this PhD you will use innovative molecular techniques to investigate a repeat expansion in the C9ORF72 gene, the most common genetic cause of Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). Recent evidence indicates C9ORF72 is epigenetically modified in patient neurons and correlated with patient survival. Using CRISPR-cas9 gene editing and motor neuron cultures obtained from patient stem cells you will investigate the role epigenetic factors play in ALS progression.

Lead Supervisor: Dr Emma Dempster
Institution: Exeter

You are what your mother eats? Influence of maternal diet on brain development and behaviour

This project seeks to understand how a mother’s diet impacts the baby’s brain development, including how neural circuits form and function. Epidemiology studies have linked maternal diet and/or body weight to increased risk of metabolic disease and neuropsychiatric conditions in their children. Changes in neuronal function are already implicated, but the roles of non-neuronal cells such as glia, are relatively underexplored and will be the focus of this project.

Lead Supervisor: Prof Kate Ellacott
Institution: Exeter

Functional assembly of 3D neuromuscular junctions on a chip for neuromotor disease modelling

The neuromuscular junction (NMJ) is an essential synapse for muscle contraction and movement. Understanding the functional establishment of an NMJ is crucial to studying neuromotor processes and associated diseases such as ALS. In this project, the student will generate 3D in-vitro models of NMJs by developing novel microfluidic organ-in-a-chip devices. They will subsequently assess their functional response to known therapeutics and validate their findings in-vivo.

Lead Supervisor: Dr Fabrice Gielen
Institution: Exeter

Statistical inference of cell type specific epigenetic profiles for the molecular epidemiology of brain disorders

Genetic risk factors for brain disorders can have substantial impacts on the regulation of gene activity, but we only have a limited understanding of how this manifests across the different cell types of the brain. This data science project will use innovative methodologies to derive cell-level genomic profiles from heterogeneous brain tissue. It would suit a quantitative student interested in learning about a broad range of genomic data types and technologies.

Lead Supervisor: Dr Eilis Hannon
Institution: Exeter

Exploiting lipid binding proteins to tackle neurological disorders

This multi-disciplinary project combines cutting-edge molecular cell biology, neurobiological, and biochemical (lipid analysis) approaches to reveal novel links between organelle membrane proteins, lipid metabolism, and neurodegenerative disorders. It will unveil new biomedical principles, the functions of novel lipid-binding proteins, and new avenues for the treatment of neurodegenerative disorders.

Lead Supervisor: Prof Michael Schrader
Institution: Exeter

Developing computational models of psychosis to explore the impact of schizophrenia-associated CNVs on cortical microcircuitry

Breakthroughs in genetics have identified specific CNVs that substantially increase risk for schizophrenia. These CNVs impact NMDA & GABAA receptors, but how this disrupts cortical function is unknown. You will develop computational models that capture changes in NMDA and GABA receptor dynamics in CNV carriers. These models will be applied to existing neuroimaging (MEG) and cognitive data to make novel insights connecting genetics to brain function and cognition.  

Lead Supervisor: Dr Alexander Shaw
Institution: Exeter

Identifying the neurobiological signatures of multisensory processing of emotional information to establish biomarkers for anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder

Mathematical modelling and data analysis provide powerful tools to identify features of brain electrical activity along with other physiological signals. This PhD project will develop network physiology approaches to integrate available experimental data and enable classification of emotional states and responses. The ultimate goal is to define digital biomarkers for anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Lead Supervisor: Prof Krasimira Tsaneva-Atanasova
Institution: Exeter

Investigating neural fine-tuning of pancreatic islet activity in glucose homeostasis and diabetes prevention

Hormone release from pancreatic islets (insulin from beta cells & glucagon from alpha cells) is tightly coordinated. This coordination is critical for glucose homeostasis and its loss leads to diabetes. We hypothesize that neural signalling is required for regulating this symphony of islet cell activity and we will use opto/chemo-genetic tools to precisely control pancreatic nerve action and simultaneously monitor resulting islet physiology in live zebrafish.

Lead Supervisor: Dr Yu Hsuan Carol Yang
Institution: Exeter

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