Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder characterised by impairments in social interactions and communication, alongside unusually restricted and repetitive behaviour patterns. Around twice as many males as females are diagnosed with autism, and this sex difference in prevalance has been suggested to relate to the higher levels of testosterone (T) that males are exposed to during foetal life (Baron-Cohen et al., 2011). This ‘foetal T’ hypothesis is supported by numerous lines of evidence in human populations, including indirect evidence that foetal T correlates with autism-relevant behavioural traits in non-clinical populations. However, as studies on human beings are inevitably correlational in nature, understanding the role of foetal T in the aetiology of autism requires the study of non-human animals in which hormone levels can be experimentally manipulated during early life. The aim of this project is to examine the effects of elevating foetal T on behavioural and physical development in Norway rats (Rattus norvegicus). Rats can be experimentally exposed to high T levels during foetal life by treating pregnant females with synthetic T, and the development of resultant offspring can be studied across the lifespan. This project will investigate the effects of elevated foetal T exposure on behaviour and cognition in both sexes, focusing on i) social behaviour, such as ultrasonic vocalisations between mothers and pups, social play behaviour during adolescence, and locomotor responses to novel environments (e.g., Brown et al., 2015), and ii) cognitive function, focusing on attentional set-shifting task, cogntive flexibility and perseveration (e.g., Birrell and Brown, 2000). The project will also involve measuring physical development, recording markers of pubertal development, and evaluating circulating hormone levels in the T-exposed and control subjects. The results of the research will directly test the hypothesis that exposure to high levels of foetal T has detrimental effects on autism-relevant behaviour and cognition in later life, and the effects on physical development and functioning of the endocrine system will also be investigated. This PhD project will provide the student with a broad range of in vivo skills, including psychopharmacological techniques, detailed recording and coding of behaviour and cognition, anatomical measurement skills, and training in how to run ELISA hormone assays. The student will also be gain experience in data management, statistical techniques, presenting research at conferences and writing up manuscripts for publication.
The School of Psychology & Neuroscience at the University of St Andrews has an excellent research environment, which was rated 4* and joint-top in the recent UK-wide REF2014 research assessment exercise. The School has a large and active community of postgraduate research students, who are provided with a comprehensive, subject-specific Postgraduate Training Programme within the School. This training is further supported by the University’s highly-commended GRADSkills programme, provided by the Centre for Academic, Professional and Organisational Development (CAPOD). The team of supervisors provides complementary expertise in animal behaviour, behavioural neuroendocrinology, and cognitive neuroscience, and the progress of postgraduate students is additionally supported by the School’s Postgraduate Tutor. Postgraduate students are provided with opportunities to present their research at national and international conferences. The Scottish Neuroscience Group, the Scottish Conference on Animal Behaviour and the Scottish Universities Psychology Postgraduate Research Training (SUPPORT) programme provide opportunities for networking with researchers from other Scottish institutions, and the University of St Andrews encourages interdisciplinary research through the Institute of Behavioural and Neural Sciences (IBANS). The University and School are committed to promoting equality and diversity, as demonstrated by Athena SWAN bronze awards.
This project is eligible for the EASTBIO Doctoral Training Partnership: http://www.eastscotbiodtp.ac.uk/
This opportunity is only open to UK nationals (or EU students who have been resident in the UK for 3+ years immediately prior to the programme start date) due to restrictions imposed by the funding body.
Apply by 5.00 pm on 5 December 2016 following the instructions on how to apply at: http://www.eastscotbiodtp.ac.uk/how-apply-0
Informal enquiries to the primary supervisor are very strongly encouraged.
Baron-Cohen S, Lombardo MV, Auyeung B, Ashwin E, Chakrabarti B and Knickmeyer R. 2011. Why are autism spectrum conditions more prevalant in males? PLoS Biology 9: e1001081.
Birrell JM and Brown VJ. 2000. Medial frontal cortex mediates perceptual attentional set shifting in the rat. Journal of Neuroscience 20: 4320-4324.
Brown GR, Kulbarsh KD, Spencer KA and Duval C. 2015. Peri-pubertal exposure to testicular hormones organizes response to novel environments and social behavior in adult male rats. Hormones and Behavior 73: 135-141.