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Modelling the staggered development and the decline with age of spatial coding in the mammalian brain

   Biosciences Institute

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  Dr Andrej Bicanski, Prof Colin Lever  No more applications being accepted  Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

About the Project

Mammalian brains contain a sophisticated spatial mapping system, localized in the hippocampus and nearby areas – collectively referred to as the ‘hippocampal formation’. The hippocampal formation is crucial for long-term memory, including spatial memory, navigation and episodic memory (a hallmark of human cognition). Intriguingly, direct recordings of cells in the hippocampal formation have revealed single neurons that code for specific spatial variables such as location, headings, and the presence of boundaries, obstacles and objects in space.

These cells (and their interplay) have been the focus of numerous neuro-computational models. However, to date there is no satisfactory account of the staggered (in time) emergence of all these cell types in the brain. It is known that directional coding emerges before boundary coding, which precedes location coding. However, it is unknown why and how the system-wide developmental process unfolds in this way, or where different cell types build on each other’s capabilities (developmental dependencies). Crucially, these developmental dependencies will likely be reflected in the nature of the breakdown of function with aging. The hippocampal formation is also among the earliest affected brain areas in Alzheimer’s Disease.

This PhD project aims to understand this staggered developmental process and the decline of spatial mapping with aging through a combination of modelling and analysis of neural data. The PhD candidate will explore the emergence and interplay of different cell types . The resultant model will then be used to assess the effects of neural degeneration in aging. To constrain the model the applicant will also analyse neural data.

The candidate will be supervised two experts in the field of spatial cognition: Dr Andrej Bicanski (Newcastle University) is an expert in neuro-computational models of spatial coding (see, Bicanski and Burgess 2018 Elife; Bicanski and Burgess 2020 Nature Reviews Neuroscience). Prof Colin Lever (Durham University) is an expert on single cell recordings of spatially selective cells and animal behaviour (see: Poulter, Lee, Wills and Lever 2021 Nature Neuroscience; Lever et al. 2009 Journal of Neuroscience). Upon completion of the PhD the student will have developed skills as a proficient modeller, but also data analysis skills, preparing the candidate for experimental work.

This project has the potential for ground-breaking contributions to our understanding of the systems-level function of mammalian brains that underlies spatial cognition across the life span (development, healthy function, aging and disease).


Applications should be made by emailing [Email Address Removed] with:

·        a CV (including contact details of at least two academic (or other relevant) referees);

·        a covering letter – clearly stating your first choice project, and optionally 2nd ranked project, as well as including whatever additional information you feel is pertinent to your application; you may wish to indicate, for example, why you are particularly interested in the selected project(s) and at the selected University;

·        copies of your relevant undergraduate degree transcripts and certificates;

·        a copy of your IELTS or TOEFL English language certificate (where required);

·        a copy of your passport (photo page).

A GUIDE TO THE FORMAT REQUIRED FOR THE APPLICATION DOCUMENTS IS AVAILABLE AT Applications not meeting these criteria may be rejected.

In addition to the above items, please email a completed copy of the Additional Details Form (as a Word document) to [Email Address Removed]. A blank copy of this form can be found at:

Informal enquiries may be made to [Email Address Removed]

The deadline for all applications is 12noon on Monday 9th January 2023. 

Funding Notes

Studentships are funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) for 4 years. Funding will cover tuition fees at the UK rate only, a Research Training and Support Grant (RTSG) and stipend. We aim to support the most outstanding applicants from outside the UK and are able to offer a limited number of bursaries that will enable full studentships to be awarded to international applicants. These full studentships will only be awarded to exceptional quality candidates, due to the competitive nature of this scheme.


A neural-level model of spatial memory and imagery. Elife. 2018 Sep 4;7:e33752.
Neuronal vector coding in spatial cognition. Nature Reviews Neuroscience. 2020 Sep;21(9):453-70.
Relevance: This is high-profile review written by supervisor 1 that showcases his international standing as an expert on experimental and computational approaches to the study of spatial cognition.
A model of head direction and landmark coding in complex environments. PLoS computational biology. 2021 Sep 27;17(9):e1009434.
Vector trace cells in the subiculum of the hippocampal formation. Nature neuroscience. 2021 Feb;24(2):266-75.
Boundary vector cells in the subiculum of the hippocampal formation. Journal of Neuroscience. 2009 Aug 5;29(31):9771-7.
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