Don't miss our weekly PhD newsletter | Sign up now Don't miss our weekly PhD newsletter | Sign up now

  Inflammation and brain function in functional neurological disorder: Implications for diagnosis and treatment.

   School of Social Sciences

This project is no longer listed on and may not be available.

Click here to search for PhD studentship opportunities
  Prof A Sumich, Dr C Howard, Prof S Mitra  No more applications being accepted  Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

About the Project

Background and context:
Functional Neurological Disorder (FND) is a condition, affecting motor function with a wide range of symptoms, in the absence of obvious organic pathology (Carson et al., 2000). Fifty percent of patients leave work post-illness onset and 25% require continued illness related welfare. Despite its high prevalence (30% of presentations to neurology clinics), research into FND is limited (Stone et al., 2010). Thus, physiological, psychological and cognitive substrates remain elusive, and treatment options are lacking, although some progress has been made using transcranial magnetic stimulation and virtual-reality based therapies (Carson et al., 2004; Stone et al., 2010; Nicholson et al., 2017). Lack of knowledge in this field exacerbates stigma toward patients, both socially and in provision of healthcare (Kozlowska, 2005; Vuilleumier, 2005; 2009). Patients often report feeling neglected by services.

Symptoms of the condition usually appear suddenly, and are often preceded by physical or emotional trauma and/or illness (Fahn & Williams, 1988; Lange, 1995; Bhatia et al., 1993; Schrag et al., 2004; Trimble, 2004; Ganos, 2014). Such events would be expected to activate an immune response which, if unresolved physiologically, would interfere with normal brain function due to the presence of low grade inflammation. Currently, there is no research on inflammation in FND. Nevertheless, empirical studies of inflammation have made significant advances in related disorders, such as chronic fatigue syndrome (myalgicencephalomyelitis) and fibromyalgia. We propose that chronic inflammation could underpin neurological deficits in motor regions of the brain. One way to measure this is by using electroencephalography (EEG). Pilot work from our laboratory has suggested atypical Delta and Beta band activity in people with FND during real and imagined movement, indicative of neurological dysfunction in motor planning and execution. Others report atypical event-related potentials (Kozlowska et al., 2017). How these EEG abnormalities relate to blood measures of inflammation is currently unclear.

Research aims:
An initial experiment would aim to investigate whether inflammation and movement-related EEG abnormalities are present in people with FND. The student will investigate a FND cohort in comparison to controls on measures of inflammation (e.g. Il-6, TNF-alpha) and motor function (behavioural tasks and EEG), to identify potential neurobiological diagnostic targets. It is also important to know whether any abnormalities in inflammation underpin symptoms and brain function. Further experiments would make use of the Division of Psychology’s cutting edge research facility, and cross-university collaborations, to investigate the feasibility of neurocognitive interventions (e.g. neurofeedback, transcranial magnetic stimulation, Virtual Reality-based) for FND.
Research design and planning:
This project will benefit from using a range of objective and triangulated measures, including validated psychometric assessments, behavioural measures, such as laboratory cognitive tasks, and advanced biological measures, such as electroencephalogram (EEG) and transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) to understand functional neurological disorders.

The Department of Psychology at Nottingham Trent University (NTU) is a large and thriving group that has grown significantly in recent years to be one of the largest in the UK. Psychology is a broad and exciting domain and the research interests of our 80+ academic staff reflect this diversity, with considerable expertise in all core areas of the discipline. Research within the Department is flourishing, with Psychology at NTU being one of the top risers in the 2014 Research Excellence Framework. All of our applied research was rated as either world leading (73%) or internationally excellent (27%), together with a substantial proportion of our research outputs (60%).

Specific qualifications/subject areas required of the applicants for this project
Entrants must have a first/undergraduate Honours degree, with an Upper Second Class or a First Class grade, in psychology. Entrants with a Lower Second Class grade at first degree must also have a postgraduate Masters Degree at Merit. Experience of using the above methods is desirable.

This studentship competition is open to applicants who wish to study for a PhD on a full-time basis only. The studentship will pay UK/EU fees (currently set at £4,195 for 2017/18 and are revised annually) and provide a maintenance stipend linked to the RCUK rate (this is revised annually and is currently set at £14,553 for the academic year 2017/18) for up to three years. Applications from non-EU students are welcome, but a successful non-EU candidate would be responsible for paying the difference between non-EU and UK/EU fees. (Fees for 2017/18 are £12,900 for non-EU students and £4,195 for UK/EU students). The studentships will be expected to commence in October 2018.

 About the Project