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  Does neural activity drive seasonal plasticity in the brains of food-hoarding birds?

   Faculty of Medical Sciences

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  Dr Tom V Smulders, Dr Timothy Boswell  No more applications being accepted  Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

About the Project

Processing large amounts of information can majorly impact brain morphology. It is difficult to model such impact in laboratory animals, but some wild animals, like hoarding birds, naturally process large amounts of information.

Hoarding intensity in food-hoarding tits and chickadees peaks in the autumn. These birds use spatial memory not only to retrieve hidden food, but also to optimally distribute new caches. The hippocampus is a brain structure that is involved in this spatial memory. It increases in volume in autumn, when hoarding intensity is high, and decreases again in winter when hoarding continues, but at lower intensities. We hypothesize that this increase in volume in autumn is not directly caused by changes in hoarding motivation, which stays high throughout winter, but instead that it is caused by the increased hippocampal activity involved in the memorization of thousands of locations. We also think that newly generated neurons play a special role in encoding these memories and therefore in the seasonal changes in the hippocampus.

Supervised by Tom Smulders (expert in seasonal hippocampal plasticity) and Tim Boswell (expert in avian appetite regulation), you will:

  1. Identify the brain areas involved in hoarding motivation using the immediate early gene c-Fos
  2. Investigate the seasonal pattern of activation of the identified brain areas using a marker of long-term neuronal activity, ΔFosB.
  3. Test the prediction that activation of the hippocampus, but not of the hoarding motivation brain areas, predicts the seasonal pattern of hippocampal volume changes.
  4. Investigate the role of newly generated neurons in hippocampal seasonal plasticity by double-labelling with ΔFosB and Doublecortin, a marker of new neurons.

This project is ideal for anyone interested in the neural basis of natural behaviours and/or in large-scale brain plasticity and its underlying mechanisms.

How to Apply:

FURTHER DETAILS AND A GUIDE TO THE FORMAT REQUIRED FOR THE APPLICATION DOCUMENTS IS AVAILABLE AT . Please read the information there before submitting your application. Applications not meeting these criteria may be rejected.

Applications should be made by emailing [Email Address Removed] with:

  • a completed copy of the Application Form (as a Word document). A blank copy of the form can be found at:
  • a CV (including contact details of two academic referees).
  • a covering letter.  This should explain your particular interest in the projects selected, and include any additional information you feel is pertinent to your application
  • copies of your relevant undergraduate degree transcripts and certificates
  • a copy of your passport (photo page).
  • your English language certificate (IELTS or TOEFL certificate, where applicable)

Informal enquiries may be made to the supervisors. The closing date for applications is 7th April 2022 at 5.00pm (UK time).

You must have, or expect to achieve, at least a 2:1 Honours degree, or international equivalent, in a subject relevant to the project (please contact the supervisors if you are unsure).

Enquiries email and address:

Dr Tom V Smulders [Email Address Removed]

Centre for Neuroscience: [Email Address Removed]

Biological Sciences (4)

Funding Notes

PhD studentships in the competition are funded by the Newcastle Neuroscience Fund for 3 years. Funding will cover tuition fees at the UK rate only, a Research Training and Support Grant and a stipend (£15,609 p.a., 2021/22 rate). Applications are welcomed from students in all countries, although students from outside the UK will be required to pay full international fees. International students may be eligible for additional financial support to cover some, or all, of these fees.


Reference 1: Lange, H., Walker, L., Orell, M. & Smulders, T.V. Seasonal changes in the hippocampal formation of hoarding and non-hoarding tits. Learning & Behavior, 2021. Doi: 10.3758/s13420-021-00481-6
Reference 2: Ladage, L.D., Roth Ii, T.C., Fox, R.A., & Pravosudov, V.V. (2010). Ecologically relevant spatial memory use modulates hippocampal neurogenesis. Proc Roy Soc B, 277(1684), 1071-1079.
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