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BBSRC MIBTP 4-year PhD Project in Cognitive Neuroscience: Applying simultaneous brain & spinal fMRI to human decision neuroscience

School of Psychology

About the Project

The Motivation and Social Neuroscience lab (MSN; is offering a project as part of the BBSRC MIBTP on psychological, physiological and brain mechanisms that underlie motivation, decision-making and fatigue.

The lab uses a combination of psychological and neuroscience techniques, to address questions such as: Why does the brain find things effortful? Why do we experience fatigue? and how does this impact on motivated decision-making? MSN is funded by a £1.25m, BBSRC David Phillips Fellowship, and moved from Oxford University to University of Birmingham in summer 2020.

Project: Most daily tasks require the exertion of effort over an extended period of time. From a workout at the gym to deciding whether to persist with a task at work, much of our activities require us to keep deciding that effort is ‘worth it’. People differ widely in how able they are to persist, often attributing failure to ‘fatigue’. However, the nature and source of this ‘fatigue’ is unclear.

Theoretical accounts have long suggested that peripheral signals from the body are carried through the spinal cord up to the brain. Signals from the body are stronger when more fatigued, influencing decision-making centres in the brain that decide whether to persist with a task. However, there is limited evidence for such accounts, as technology had been unable to precisely measure spinal signals, brain signals, and motivated behaviour simultaneously. The aim of the proposed project is to provide some of the first links between computational processes, brain mechanisms and bodily signals.

The project will use a combination of simultaneous brain and spinal fMRI, brain imaging, computational modelling and novel tasks from psychology and neuroscience to test theories of motivated behaviour in healthy people. Using these tools, students will be given the independence to address their own questions of interest about how signals in the spine influence brain signals that guide decision-making and how fatigue shapes behaviour. This project brings together supervisory expertise in motivation and computational modelling (Dr. Apps), in brain (Dr. Bagshaw) and spinal imaging (Dr. Khatibi). The student would get training in methods from psychology, neuroimaging and computational science, allowing them to develop a wide range of skills.

For more information about the project:

***IMPORTANT*** Prior to submitting an application, all interested candidates should first contact Dr. Apps () with a copy of their CV to express interest. Following this, only applicants with the most competitive CV will be requested to submit a PhD application using the University of Birmingham on-line application system. Dr. Apps is keen to support students from diverse backgrounds in a supportive lab environment.

Funding Notes

This studentship is not guaranteed for this project, but is awarded as part of a competition between students as part of the Neuroscience and Behaviour section of the BBSRC MIBTP scheme:

Project details View Website

Funding details: View Website

University of Birmingham: View Website

The studentship offers a number of benefits:
- fees (at UK rate)
- a tax free stipend of at least £15,295 p.a (to rise in line with UKRI recommendation)
- a travel allowance in year 1
- a travel / conference budget
- a generous consumables budget
- use of a MacBook Pro for the duration of the programme.


Chong, T.T.J.,* Apps, M.,* et al., 2017. Neurocomputational mechanisms underlying subjective valuation of effort costs. PLoS Biology, 15(2). *equal contributors

Eippert, F., et al., 2009. Direct Evidence for Spinal Cord Involvement in Placebo Analgesia. Science 5591(326)

Lockwood, P.L., et al., 2017. Prosocial apathy for helping others when effort is required. Nature human behaviour, 1(7), p.0131

Vahdat, S., et al., 2020. Resting-state brain and spinal cord networks in humans are functionally integrated. PLoS Biology

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