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Doctoral opportunities

Research students are welcomed to our Centre as valued members of our thriving, research-intensive community. Find out more about Research Degrees in Brunel. A research degree provides the opportunity to investigate a topic in depth, and contribute new knowledge to your discipline. We are particularly interested in supervising students' research in the following areas, but this list is not exaustive. Please feel free to contact a suitable member of staff with your own ideas linking to the general theme of the centre: 

   A selection of current proposed PhD projects

Underlying neuroscience of depression and loneliness and drug use and social policy

My research interests have always been within the field of psychiatry and I have a specific interest in depression and loneliness. My research has explored these conditions from a multi-disciplinary perspective (from molecular to clinical and epidemiology to social policy) thus I have experience with a wide variety of research approaches including experimental techniques, cognitive testing and the use of large databases. I am also interested in young people’s knowledge of the harms associated the use of legal and illegal drugs and stigma towards mental health. I would be very interested to supervise PhD projects that address any one of the following themes (i) investigating and understanding the cognitive processes underlying loneliness (ii) cognitive and reward biases in depression and at risk populations (iii) exploring young people’s knowledge of alcohol harms, particularly across different populations and cultures (iv) understanding the relationship between mental well-being and stigmatizing attitudes towards the mentally ill. I would be very interested to supervise PhD projects that address any one of the following themes (i) investigating and understanding the cognitive processes underlying loneliness (ii) cognitive and reward biases in depression and at risk populations (iii) exploring young people’s knowledge of alcohol harms, particularly across different populations and cultures (iv) understanding the relationship between mental well-being and stigmatizing attitudes towards the mentally ill.

Supervisor: Dr Survjit Cheeta

The functional neuroanatomical correlates of multitasking

Multitasking refers to doing two tasks at the same time, which usually results in severe performance decrements. In our research we aim to find out why these performance decrements occur and how they might be explained in terms of brain activity as measured by functional magnetic resonance imaging. There are various projects available in this area, including projects crossing domains e.g. with working memory.

Supervisor: Dr Andre Szameitat

Constructing a stable world: how the brain uses gaze direction to disambiguate sensory information

When objects move in the real world, they create a wave of activity across the retina representing that movement. But the same effect could be achieved by moving our eyes across a static object. The brain hardly ever misinterprets these signals and is capable of producing a stable representation of the world around us. How does it achieve this? Studies suggest that signals that indicate the position of the eyes in the head are critically important in vision, allowing us to disambiguate the information inherent in the retinal image. But where are these signals found in the brain and how are they utilized? This project will explore the representation of eye-position (or gaze direction) in the human brain using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). A number of parietal and occipital brain areas have been implicated, and given the existence of multiple visual maps within these brain areas, this project will explore whether eye-position also exhibits some topographic organisation. Furthermore, in order to establish a more causal role that these eye-position signals may play in generating stable percepts of the world, transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) will be utilised to temporarily disrupt activity in these areas and determine what effect they have on perception.

Supervisor: Dr Adrian Williams

Neural basis of perceptual expertise in sport

Functional neuroimaging studies in our laboratory have, over the last decade, identified neural correlates of perceptual expertise in sports including tennis, badminton, football and hockey. They have identified a consistent network of brain areas involved in tasks such as action prediction and the detection of deceptive moves. Sporting action is sufficiently structured to be amenable to experimental methods such as fMRI and EEG and is an ideal domain to explore fundamental and applied issues, such as the specificity versus generalisability of skills, the role of contextual information and selective attention, and the understanding of normal and deceptive actions and their consequences.  Possible projects include: fMRI, MRS or EEG studies of a) domain specificity versus generality of skills, b) the role of contextual information in sporting expertise, c) the understanding of normal and deceptive actions and their consequences, d) inhibitory processes in action observation brain network of athletes.

Supervisor: Prof Michael Wright

 

Funding for doctoral studies

A number of studentships and other research funding opportunities are available at Brunel. Please see full list here: Research degree funding

Choosing your supervisor

Our researchers create knowledge and advance understanding, and equip versatile graduates with the confidence to apply what they have learnt for the benefit of society. Browse the list of the members of our Theme to select your potential supervisor here. You are welcome to approach your potential supervisor directly to discuss your research interests.

All research degrees are administered by the Postgraduate Programmes Office in Colleges. Once you have identified your area of research and a potential supervisor, please use the contact details provided here for enquiries.

A selection of our current PhD projects

Current PhD Projects
 Title of thesisStudent name Supervision Description of project 
 

The reward processing and emotion decoding profiles of individuals receiving care within forensic psychiatric services


 

Luke Aldridge-Waddon

 

Primary Supervisor: Professor Veena Kumari

Secondary Supervisor: Dr Jaap Munneke

 

 

My project focuses on the mental health and personality characteristics of men and women receiving care within forensic psychiatric settings. Most people receiving care within these settings have a history of mental illness and/or personality disorder, and many also have a history of serious offending towards themselves or others. Despite the substantial resources that are dedicated to rehabilitating offenders with mental health and personality difficulties, little is known about the interactions between certain mental health and personality characteristics, antisocial behaviour, and successful rehabilitation outcomes. Therefore, this project aims to better understand the psychological mechanisms (specifically within the domains of reward processing and emotion decoding) that underpin these behaviours, and uses behavioural and neuroimaging methods to do so. Furthermore, it aims to link those mechanisms and characteristics to clinical outcomes, so that this project might catalyse more bespoke and comprehensive treatments for service users receiving care within forensic psychiatric settings.

A Simple View of Reading between a Transparent and an Opaque Orthography: An Eye-movement Study

Catherine Antalek

Primary Supervisor: Professor Taeko Wydell

Secondary Supervisor: Dr. Bianca De Haan

My current research uses eye tracking technology to investigate how the orthographic structure of languages impacts reading development, reading disabilities, and second language acquisition. Languages differ considerably in terms of their orthographic structure; deep orthographies have an inconsistent grapheme-phoneme conversion, like that of English, and shallow orthographies are comprised of a consistent conversion, like that of Spanish. The Orthographic Depth Hypothesis (Katz & Frost, 1992) claims that efficient reading requires readers to adapt reading strategies to meet the demands of the orthography being read. Languages with varying depths of orthographies may require distinct reading strategies that drive the development of specific reading skills and may affect a bilingual’s ability to efficiently comprehend texts in languages of varying orthographic depths. My research aims to compare cross-language reading strategies of Spanish-English bilinguals measured through eye-movement patterns while reading sentences for meaning, and strategies with native English readers to those of Spanish natives reading in English. These findings will not only have a scientific merit but also have educational and diagnostic implications for populations of English language learners and for readers of consistent orthographies.
 

The effects of anxiety on balance control

 

Anna Fielding

 

Primary Supervisor: Dr Andrew Parton; Secondary Supervisor: Dr Will Young

 

This project investigates the effects of increased state anxiety on how different senses (e.g. vision vs. vestibular and proprioceptive input) integrate in the brain to maintain stable control of orthostatic balance. By placing people in virtual reality, exposing them to postural threat (e.g. a cliff edge), and perturbing the visual field, we can infer how much they are relying on visual information vs. non-visual sensory input for balance by measuring their postural response to the visual perturbation, and how this changes under anxiogenic and non-anxiogenic conditions. We are using this paradigm in young, older, and clinical populations to gain more insight into how balance control changes across age and neurodegenerative disease, with an aim to eventually inform more effective cognitive and/or physiotherapeutic techniques for those with balance issues. 

Executive function abilities, cognitive ageing and dementia Mojitola Idowu  

Primary supervisor: Dr Andre Szameitat

Secondary supervisor: Dr Andrew Parton

Ageing and neurodegenerative conditions (such as dementia) are known to affect the cognitive abilities of individuals, but the similarities and differences between these groups in the decline in these abilities are less understood. Though, there is agreement on the likely importance of executive functions, which are traditionally conceptualised as a set of mental processes that allow us to plan, remember, organise, maintain attention and complete tasks. 

This research involves looking at four distinct executive functions in the cognitively healthy young and older adults, and in the cognitively impaired older adult population to better understand the nature and rate of their deterioration. Further, MRI scanning of these groups will be conducted to determine what structural and functional changes have occurred to correlate with the change in cognitive abilities, i.e. is the localisation of brain activity the same for each group while performing the same task.

Developmental dyslexia: a multi-sensory approach

Yazmin Rashidmanesh

Primary Supervisor: Dr Ben Jennings

Secondary Supervisor: Professor Taeko Wydell

Developmental dyslexia is a specific reading disability in which sensory processing shows learning deficits for reading. It effects almost 10% of school-aged children, thus representing a significant public health issue (Quercia, Feiss and Michel, 2013). Though it is the subject of a vast amount of research, the underlying mechanisms of developmental dyslexia is not fully understood (Ramus, 2003). Deficits in phonological awareness cannot fully explain all the observed forms of dyslexia and recently there has been additional interest in the study of the multi-sensory integration of incoming sound and visual information to explain the basis of dyslexia (Sela, 2014). Multisensory training can create new connections in the brain, which can ultimately contribute to reading fluency, speed and comprehension, phonological processing, and both auditory and visual working memory (Hahn, Foxe and Molholm, 2014). This can reverse the negative long-term effects usually seen in young adults with dyslexia, and hence assist with informing individual remediation programmes. This project aims to investigate the multi-sensory integration of light and sound information, i.e., the combination of processing in the visual and auditory systems, in children and young adults with developmental dyslexia through psychophysical (i.e., behavioural) and EEG methods. This can in turn lead to exploring new techniques to identify those with dyslexia earlier so that actions can be taken to strengthen brain pathways before the damaging effects of reading failure are felt.

Low Serum Cholesterol and Violence in Forensic Mental Health Populations

Piyal Sen Primary supervisor: Professor Veena Kumari  Outcomes in forensic mental health services tend to be varied, with a proportion of individuals showing poor outcomes even following lengthy inpatient treatments. Predictors of risk, which are objective, easily measurable and sensitive to risk-focused treatment, would be particularly useful in assisting clinicians in treatment planning, risk assessment and making prognostic calculations, particularly when predicting length of stay for forensic mental health inpatients. Previous studies have suggested that serum cholesterol level at admission may be a promising predictor of inpatient violence (and possibly of generally poor longer-term outcomes) in forensic mental health patients.The current application aims to address two key knowledge gaps. First, to test whether the association between serum cholesterol and inpatient violence in forensic mental health services is present both in men and in women with schizophrenia.  Second, to investigate whether the association between serum cholesterol and violence is moderated by antipsychotic treatment. We focus on antipsychotics that are known to affect serotonergic activity given that experimentally-lowered cholesterol results in increased impulsive and violent acts in monkeys through serotonergic changes. 

To achieve these aims, we propose to systematically investigate the serum cholesterol levels in a well-characterised sample of forensic inpatients with schizophrenia, and its utility in predicting treatment outcomes using data that were gathered organically in the context of routine clinical care.  The findings will help to determine when and for whom low serum cholesterol may indicate a high risk of future violence (and poor outcome more generally).This project has therefore the potential to yield an objective, inexpensive and easily obtained biomarker to aid and improve clinical decision making and lead to more evidence-based and efficient clinical practice in forensic mental health services for patients with schizophrenia.

Cognitive characteristics and prediction of outcome in people with mental illness in forensic mental health facilities Martina Vanova Primary Supervisor: Professor Veena Kumari; Secondary Supervisor: Dr Ben Jennings; External: Dr Ignazio Puzzo

This PhD project aims to (i) comprehensively investigate cognitive abilities, with a special focus on reading, in people with a mental illness and a history of a criminal offence residing in forensic mental health facilities compared to healthy controls, and (ii) examine cognitive abilities as possible predictors of current and future clinical outcome in forensic mental health patients.  In addition, using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), it will investigate the neural correlates of specific cognitive abilities, such as inhibitory control, that differentiate forensic mental health patients from healthy people and will also examine how they relate to dimensional measures of wellbeing and personality traits in healthy people.

Music for the Mind: In Search of a Novel Therapeutic Intervention for Depression

Amir-Hosseyn Yassari

Primary supervisor: Professor Veena Kumari

Second Supervisor: Costas I. Karageorghis

Depression remains an extremely taxing psychiatric disorder with a significant impairment in one’s quality of life. Add-on therapies supporting standard treatment, such as metacognitive therapy, have shown their efficacy in improving cognitive and emotional functioning in people with depression. Further interventions based on music therapy and auditory training have gained an important role in the last decade. Extending this line of enquiry, this PhD project aims to systematically investigate the effects of a unique sound stimulation auditory training program in people with clinical depression or depressive symptoms using a non-concurrent multiple baseline across-individuals design. It is hypothesised that this training will improve mindfulness, produce positive measurable behavioural outcomes in terms of improved neurocognitive abilities and social interactions, and will reduce depressive symptoms.  The findings, if as expected, will help to introduce a unique, practical, cost-effective add-on therapy with no adverse effects that can be effectively and efficiently administered to people with depression to reduce the global burden of disease.