GW4 BioMed2 MRC DTP PhD project: Effects of cannabis on the adolescent brain and epigenetic aging

   Department of Psychology

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  Dr Tom Freeman  No more applications being accepted  Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

About the Project

This project is one of a number that are in competition for funding from the GW4 BioMed2 MRC Doctoral Training Partnership which is offering up to 20 studentships for entry in October 2023.

The DTP brings together the Universities of Bath, Bristol, Cardiff and Exeter to develop the next generation of biomedical researchers. Students will have access to the combined research strengths, training expertise and resources of the four research-intensive universities. More information may be found on the DTP’s website.

Supervisory Team:

  • Dr Tom Freeman (lead), University of Bath, Department of Psychology
  • Dr Esther Walton, University of Bath, Department of Psychology
  • Prof Derek Jones, Cardiff University, Department of Psychology
  • Dr Emma Dempster, University of Exeter, Exeter Medical School

The Project:

Adolescence is a critical neurodevelopmental period which may confer greater vulnerability to the harmful effects of cannabis. To test this hypothesis, the student will apply a range of advanced methods (structural MRI, diffusion MRI, brain aging, epigenetic aging) to a recently completed longitudinal study. The student will work with young people to create a novel video resource for drugs education and to encourage youth engagement with science.

Cannabis is used by approximately 200 million people worldwide. This number is set to increase further as cannabis becomes available as a legal drug in the USA, Canada and beyond. One of the key public health concerns arising from this is the potential adverse impact of cannabis use on the developing brain. Advances in our understanding of the endocannabinoid system show that it plays a key role in adolescent neurodevelopment.

Cannabinoid receptors are abundantly expressed in brain regions which change rapidly during adolescence and are highly interconnected with white matter fibers. Because cannabis acts on cannabinoid receptors, adolescence could mark a crucial developmental window of heightened vulnerability to the effects of cannabis. This studentship will provide exclusive access to data from a major MRC-funded project: “How does cannabis use affect teenagers’ brains, cognitive functions and psychological wellbeing? (CannTeen)”, registered on the Open Science Framework:

The student will work with an unprecedented dataset including neuroimaging, genetic, clinical, cognitive, and biological marker data, supervised by international experts in cannabinoid psychopharmacology (Dr Freeman, Bath), neuroimaging (Prof Jones, Cardiff; Dr Walton, Bath) and epigenetics (Dr Walton, Bath; Dr Dempster, Exeter). The student will have full opportunity and capacity to learn diverse analysis techniques from these multiple disciplines, creating a good degree of challenge. The CannTeen study consists of four groups (adolescent cannabis users, adolescent controls, adult cannabis users, adult controls) followed up every three months for one year.

The student will address the following research questions:

  1. Are adolescents more vulnerable to the effects of cannabis use on brain structure?
  2. Are adolescents more vulnerable to the effects of cannabis use on white matter microstructure?
  3. Are adolescents more vulnerable to the effects of cannabis use on trajectories of brain aging?
  4. Are adolescents more vulnerable to the effects of cannabis use on trajectories of epigenetic aging?

As the first longitudinal study to directly compare how adolescents and adults differ in response to cannabis use on the brain and aging, this studentship will generate world-first findings, with the potential to inform policy (e.g. minimum age restrictions for cannabis sales). In the final six months, the student will engage with young people from local schools to create a video resource using results from research questions 1-4. The video will be designed to play a dual role: an evidence-based drugs education resource, and to encourage engagement with science among young people. It will be shared on social media to generate wide international reach and impact.


Applicants must have obtained, or be expected to obtain, a First or Upper Second Class UK Honours degree, or the equivalent qualifications gained outside the UK, in an area appropriate to the skills requirements of the project. Academic qualifications are considered alongside significant relevant non-academic experience.

Non-UK applicants will also be required to have met the English language entry requirements of the University of Bath.

Enquiries and Applications:

Informal enquiries are welcomed and should be directed to Dr Tom Freeman on email address [Email Address Removed].

Formal applications must be submitted direct to the GW4 BioMed2 DTP using their online application form.

A list of all available projects and guidance on how to apply may be found on the DTP’s website. You may apply for up to 2 projects.


IMPORTANT: You do NOT need to apply to the University of Bath at this stage – only those applicants who are successful in obtaining an offer of funding from the DTP will be required to submit an application for an offer of study from Bath.

Biological Sciences (4) Mathematics (25) Medicine (26) Psychology (31)

Funding Notes

Candidates may be considered for a 4-year GW4 BioMed2 MRC DTP studentship covering tuition fees, a stipend (£17,668 p/a in 2022/23) and a Research & Training Support grant of between £2,000 and £5,000 p/a dependent on project requirements. Studentships are open to both Home and International students; however, International applicants should note that funding does NOT cover the cost of a student visa, healthcare surcharge and other costs of moving to the UK. In line with guidance from UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), the number of awards available to International candidates will be limited to 30% of the total.

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