PhD studentship - The importance of neural plasticity in ageing


University of Bristol, Bristol
Closing date: 
27 February 2017
Richard Apps

As we age the body changes and so the motor system must compensate for these alterations in biomechanics. Problems with this compensation process affects the ability of older adults to do everyday tasks which in turn has an impact on quality of life.  To understand this we need to combine studies of motor adaptation in humans with brain imaging methods (fMRI in this case) and in a model animal system.

An apparently simple task such as reaching to grasp an object is computationally complex because of sensory and motor error. For example, when picking up an object to move it to a desired goal the object may be heavier than expected, resulting in a motor error.  To learn to compensate and correct for such errors the nervous system employs a ubiquitous and fundamental process of motor adaptation (MA).  

This type of error-based motor learning allows the performance of accurate movements- both in the short term but also in the long term as a result of healthy ageing.

The aim of this PhD project is to bring together the combined expertise of neuroscientists and psychologists with a track record in motor systems research to use complementary neuroimaging (fMRI functional brain imaging in healthy people), in vivo electrophysiological (multiple brain site recording methods in rats) and human experimental psychology to characterise MA at multiple levels of description and how they change with age.

The project will address the following interrelated questions:

1)         How does MA change across the lifespan in heathy ageing and how does this relate to broader motor ability and quality of life.

2)         In human subjects, what are the fMRI signatures of MA and how do these relate to MA in healthy ageing?

3)         In rats what are the corresponding neural signatures of MA in large scale brain networks?

To enable direct comparisons between human and animal experiments we will use the same motor paradigms in all three lines of work: manual reaching tasks.  We will measure the rate and nature of MA across these tasks in response to: (i) motor perturbation (e.g. using weights or a magnetic force) and (ii) visual perturbation (e.g. using prism glasses).

The combination of methods will allow us to map from changes in human MA which affect quality of life to the brain mechanism that cause these changes (using human fMRI) to the global changes in circuits supporting motor plasticity in the animal models.

Overall, this project should provide fundamental new insights into how neural circuits within the brain give rise to our ability to modify our actions to achieve a goal. While providing an explanation for the changes in motor ability that occur with ageing.

The project is suitable for a student interested in receiving a unique combination of training spanning the fields of neuroscience and psychology. This will include: 1) state-of-the-art in vivo research techniques, including advanced electrophysiological recording and associated analytical methods. There is a world-wide shortage of scientists with these specialist skills so expertise in this area will aid their future career. And 2) Human experimental psychology including the measurement of movement kinematics.  Because of the societal need, the study of ageing in humans is a growth research area in which there is a shortage of trained scientist and the student will receive unique training in this area.   

Please see for further details

As part of your application, you need to choose: Faculty of Biomedical Sciences under the ‘Faculty’ section, and South West Biosciences Doctoral Training Partnership (PhD) under the ‘programme choice’ section. Additionally under the ‘Research Details’ section, please indicate that you are applying for a BBSRC/ESRC SWBio DTP project and give the project title and names of supervisors.