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(BBSRC DTP) Examining the neural pathways controlling human swallowing in the older brain through cortical and peripheral neurostimulation

Project Description

The ageing process involves physiological and neurological changes that diminish swallowing safety and efficiency, which may increase the risk of life-threatening complications such as malnutrition and aspiration pneumonia. Such deterioration in function does not only lower the quality of life of the elderly people, but also increases burden on the healthcare system in the long run. Therefore it is important to identify strategies that can preserve normal swallowing in older adults for as long as possible.

Recent studies have investigated the use of neurostimulation in regulating the human swallowing system. Transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) is a form of non-invasive brain stimulation that modulates brain excitability through continuous delivery of direct electrical current across the cerebral cortex. Our previous work has identified the optimal parameters of tDCS for increasing excitability of the swallowing motor cortex and reversing the neurological and behavioural effects of an induced disruption in the swallowing system1,2. Apart from cortical (brain) stimulation, peripheral (sensory) stimulation is also shown to be able to modulate the excitability of the swallowing motor cortex3. These findings suggested that the human swallowing system is highly susceptible to neurostimulation. However, these studies focused mainly on younger healthy adults (<50 years). Little is known regarding the response of ageing brain to neurostimulation or how this approach can be applied to preserve swallowing as we age.

The project aims to address this issue and develop neurostimulation strategies for maintaining healthy swallowing function in older healthy volunteers. The student will recruit approximately 90 healthy volunteers aged 65 or above who have no swallowing problems or other medical complications that contraindicate brain stimulation studies. We will investigate the effects of tDCS, peripheral (visual and olfactory) stimulation, and the combination of these neurostimulation on swallowing. First, we will evaluate the effects of the three stimulation modalities on the excitability of the swallowing motor cortex using electrophysiological assessments. The optimal protocol that is most effective in enhancing the excitability will be identified. After that, the effects of the optimal protocol on swallowing function and brain activation during swallowing will be evaluated using behavioural tasks and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) respectively.

The project will enable us to develop novel approaches to combat the challenges of deterioration in physiological functions faced by the ageing population. It will be led by a multidisciplinary team and provide an excellent opportunity for a (biomedical) student to develop skills that will be highly marketable within industry and academia.

Entry Requirements:
Applications are invited from UK/EU nationals only. Applicants must have obtained, or be about to obtain, at least an upper second class honours degree (or equivalent) in a relevant subject.

Funding Notes

This project is to be funded under the BBSRC Doctoral Training Partnership. If you are interested in this project, please make direct contact with the Principal Supervisor to arrange to discuss the project further as soon as possible. You MUST also submit an online application form - full details on how to apply can be found on the BBSRC DTP website View Website

As an equal opportunities institution we welcome applicants from all sections of the community regardless of gender, ethnicity, disability, sexual orientation and transgender status. All appointments are made on merit.

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