Funded PhD SWBio DTP- Evolution of learning and memory circuits

   School of Biological Sciences

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  Dr Stephen Montgomery, Prof J Hodge  No more applications being accepted  Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

About the Project

Evolutionary innovation and refinement of neural systems underpins the diversity of behaviour across animal life. By considering natural variation in neural systems, we can begin to understand how new or enhanced behaviours are underpinned at the network level. The diversity and tractability of insects make them particularly well-suited to integrative studies of brain evolution. One of the most variable structures in the insect brain are the mushroom bodies, major integration centres which receive input from primary sensory areas, and play a critical role in associative learning and memory.

Learning can have important ecological effects, providing mechanisms to adapt to changes in resource availability, facilitating range expansion, and optimising reproductive behaviours. This is of particular importance for long lived species such as Heliconius butterflies. This unique genus actively collects and digests pollen, providing an adult source of essential amino acids, which other Heliconiini lack. This dietary innovation is accompanied by the evolution of trap-line foraging, where individuals learn foraging routes between resources with high spatial and temporal fidelity, which they exploit for many weeks or months, suggesting they are dependent on an enhanced capacity for visually orientated spatial memory. We have recently shown that mushroom bodies are highly variable across Heliconiini, being 4 times larger than in their close relatives (Couto et al. Nat Comms. 2023). This extreme volumetric variation among Heliconiini mushroom bodies is explained by massive increases in the number of mushroom body neurons. Together with evidence for conserved synaptic densities, we hypothesise that selection for circuit replication may play a major role in mushroom body evolution in this tribe. This would be consistent with models that suggest information storage capacity increases logarithmically with neuron number. However, we also observe several traits that suggest a degree of circuit modification which suggests a degree of both local and global circuit refinement.

This project will test these hypotheses, by developing whole brain views of circuit variation in morphologically variable species. You will combine new methods to characterise whole brain projectomics to reconstruct patterns of connectivity within and between brain regions, and overlap these data with information from the molecular identity of cell types. The project would suit a student with an interest in high throughput neuroanatomy, image analysis and a desire to develop excellent programming and computational skills. You will be supported to develop extensive expertise in insect neurobiology, imaging and image analysis, and quantitative analysis of cell and network morphologies.

Our aim as the SWBio DTP is to support students from a range of backgrounds and circumstances. Where needed, we will work with you to take into consideration reasonable project adaptations (for example to support caring responsibilities, disabilities, other significant personal circumstances) as well as flexible working and part-time study requests, to enable greater access to a PhD. All our supervisors support us with this aim, so please feel comfortable in discussing further with the listed PhD project supervisor to see what is feasible.

How to apply  

To apply, please read the information on the prospectus page of the programme - South West Biosciences Doctoral Training Partnership (BBSRC) | Study at Bristol | University of Bristol, including the Admissions Statement and the English proficiency requirements. 

Then, enter the University of Bristol application portal: Start your application | Study at Bristol | University of Bristol and select the programme “South West Biosciences Doctoral Training Partnership (PhD)”. You can select any of the entry points, applying to up to 3 projects, although the start date will be in September 2024. 

The application deadline is 11:59 pm on 04/12/2023. 

You can find more information at the link: How to apply – SWBiosciences Doctoral Training Partnership, selecting “University of Bristol”. 


The South West Biosciences Doctoral Training Partnership (SWBio DTP) is led by the University of Bristol, together with the Universities of Bath, Cardiff and Exeter, alongside Rothamsted Research.  This partnership also includes the following associate partners; Marine Biological Association (MBA), Plymouth Marine Laboratory (PML), SETsquared Bristol, Swansea University, UCB Pharma and University of the West of England (UWE).  

These institutions represent a distinctive group of bioscience research staff and students, with established international, national and regional networks, and widely recognised research excellence. As research leaders, we have a strong track record in advancing knowledge through high-quality research and teaching, in partnership with industry and the government.  

The programme particularly aims to provide students with outstanding interdisciplinary research training within the following areas - advancing the frontiers of bioscience discovery; bioscience for sustainable agriculture and food; bioscience for an integrated understanding of health. Importantly this research training is also underpinned by transformative technologies, allowing our students to expand the boundaries of their research through innovative tools, technologies and approaches.  Our students will be exposed to the expertise of all the partners by visiting / using their facilities, taking part in joint conferences, workshops and taught modules. To further the collaboration between the partnership, cross-institutional PhD projects will be featured that build on the expertise of each partner.  

Programme Overview  

Programme – SWBiosciences Doctoral Training Partnership  

If you have any questions on the scheme, you are welcome to contact Sue Summerill (Graduate Administration Manager, Faculty of Life Sciences) with any questions - [Email Address Removed]

For project-related enquiries, please contact the project supervisor.

Biological Sciences (4) Medicine (26)

Funding Notes

This project is only available for UK and international students. The studentship duration is four years, and it includes an annual stipend set at the current UKRI recommendation of £18,622.  Tuition fees and research costs are fully supported by the studentship, as well as additional funds to support fieldwork, conferences and a 3-month placement. An allowance for paid sick leave and parental leave is available as well, in addition to 5 weeks of paid leave each year.
Further information on funding:
Further information on eligibility:

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