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Early life adversity and cardiovascular and immune responses to stress

  • Full or part time
  • Application Deadline
    Applications accepted all year round
  • Self-Funded PhD Students Only
    Self-Funded PhD Students Only

Project Description

This project can be offered either on a full-time or a part-time basis. Please email the prospective supervisor for more details.

Cardiovascular disease is the biggest cause of death in the United Kingdom; in 2007, 34% of deaths in the UK were attributed to cardiovascular disease (BritishHeartFoundation, 2010). There is consistent evidence that large magnitude cardiovascular reactions to acute psychological stress increase the risk of adverse cardiovascular outcomes such as: elevated blood pressure and systemic atherosclerosis. Low or blunted cardiovascular reactivity to acute stress has, by implication, been regarded as benign or even protective. However, both low and high cardiovascular reactivity to acute psychological stress may have serious consequences for health (Carroll, Phillips, & Lovallo, 2009). There is evidence that low or blunted cardiovascular and cortisol reactivity is characteristic of those with substance dependencies and may indeed be a general marker for risk of addiction. For example, habitual smokers have been found to show diminished salivary and plasma cortisol and cardiovascular reactions to a range of acute psychological stress tasks. Further, blunted cardiovascular and cortisol reactivity has been found to predict relapse among smokers who have recently quit. Thus, blunted reactivity has prognostic significance. Those addicted to alcohol have also been found to exhibit blunted cardiovascular and cortisol stress reactivity, as have their offspring, suggesting that blunted reactivity may actually pre-date addiction and signal risk of future addiction. Accordingly, in blunted reactivity we may have a marker of motivational dysregulation linked to inherited risk of addiction (Lovallo, 2006).

We have also found that blunted cardiovascular reactivity is associated with abdominal adiposity and obesity, and in prospective analyses, actually predicted risk of developing obesity (Carroll, Phillips, & Der, 2008). Obesity is an established risk factor for cardiovascular disease morbidity and mortality . Individuals with blunted cardiovascular reactivity have been shown cross-sectionally to report more symptoms of depression (Carroll, Phillips, Hunt, & Der, 2007; Phillips, Hunt, Der, & Carroll, 2010) and be at increased risk prospectively of having worsening depressive symptomatology longitudinally (Phillips et al., 2010) poorer self-reported health both cross-sectionally and longitudinally (Phillips, 2011; Phillips, Der, & Carroll, 2009) and poorer cognition and faster cognitive decline.

However, although task performance and appraisals may not differ between high and low reactors in our experience, these individuals do differ on a range of personality characteristics, for example, blunted responders have demonstrated higher neuroticism (Bibbey, Carroll, Roseboom, Phillips, & de Rooij, 2012; Phillips, Carroll, Burns, & Drayson, 2005) and lower levels of agreeableness (Bibbey et al., 2012). However, as well as characteristics and attitudes of individuals relating to their reactivity to acute stress, we have also found behavioural differences among high and low stress reactors. For example, those with blunted reactivity show poorer performance in effort or motivation-related tasks such as forced expiratory volume in one minute (Carroll et al., 2012; Carroll et al., 2013). Further, individuals displaying blunted reactivity also showed higher levels of impulsivity across two behavioural tasks involving impulse control (Bibbey, Ginty, Brindle, Phillips, & Carroll, 2016). In this latter study, participants did not appear to differ on tasks involving perseverance, although it might be expected that this also involves a high level of motivation and effort. However, this might reflect the number of different behavioural tasks employed in a single session, leading to participant fatigue. More recently, we have demonstrated that individuals characterised by blunted stress reactivity are actually less like to attend for follow-up sessions in a longitudinal study despite repeated reminders and incentives (Ginty, Brindle, & Carroll, 2015).

Consequently, the present project will seek to further understand the associations between perseverance and reactivity to acute stress in order to gain further understanding of the behavioural associations of blunted stress reactivity. This will likely give insight into those most in need of support in situations requiring high perseverance across a range of settings, such as smoking cessation, and higher education. It is also a novel question which has not been thoroughly tested before.

The student will have a strong first degree or masters in the life sciences, a strong motivation to work with human participants, and particularly to overcome recruitment issues with the NHS. Some bioscientific laboratory experience and skills within the field of immunology or conducting similar assays is essential. Some experience of physiological testing such as blood pressure and heart rate monitoring would be useful.

Funding Notes

We welcome applications from Home/EU and overseas students. The University of Birmingham offers a number of competitive scholarships for students of the highest calibre. Further details are available at :
View Website
Students are also welcome to apply with their own funding for this project, either through their own person funds or by securing a scholarship.
Eligibility requirements: An Undergraduate Honours degree with a minimum classification of a 2.1 or equivalent and an English Language qualification for international students.
Annual bench fee for consumables costs of about £6000 per year.


Bibbey, A., et al. (2012). Personality and physiological reactions to acute psychological stress. Int J Psychophysiol.
Bibbey, A., et al. (2016). Blunted cardiac stress reactors exhibit relatively high levels of behavioural impulsivity. Physiol Behav, 159, 40-44.
Carroll, D., et al. (2009). Are large physiological reactions to acute psychological stress always bad for health? Social and Personality Compass (Health Section), 3, 725-743.
Ginty, A. T., et al.. (2015). Cardiac stress reactions and perseverance: Diminished reactivity is associated with study non-completion. Biol Psychol, 109, 200-205.
Phillips, A. C. (2011). Blunted cardiovascular reactivity relates to depression, obesity, and self-reported health. Biol Psychol, 86(2), 106-113.
Phillips, A. C., et al.. (2005). Neuroticism, cortisol reactivity, and antibody response to vaccination. Psychophysiology, 42(2), 232-238.
Phillips, A. C., et al. (2009). Self-reported health and cardiovascular reactions to psychological stress in a large community sample: cross-sectional and prospective associations. Psychophysiology, 46(5), 1020-1027.
Phillips, A. C., et al. (2009). Haemodynamic reactions to acute psychological stress and smoking status in a large community sample. International Journal of Psychophysiology, 73, 273-278.
Phillips, A. C., et al.. (2010). Blunted cardiac reactions to acute psychological stress predict symptoms of depression five years later: Evidence from a large community study. Psychophysiology.
Phillips, A. C., et al. (2012). Cardiovascular and cortisol reactions to acute psychological stress and adiposity: cross-sectional and prospective associations in the Dutch Famine Birth Cohort Study. Psychosom Med, 74(7), 699-710.

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