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(MRC DTP) Understanding the biophysical basis of functional Magnetic Resonance Spectroscopy measurements in the human brain

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  • Full or part time
    Dr L Parkes
    Dr M Montemurro
    Dr Caroline Lea-Carnall
  • Application Deadline
    No more applications being accepted
  • Competition Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)
    Competition Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)

Project Description

Magnetic resonance spectroscopy (MRS) is a valuable tool used to study the chemical composition of the human brain. The technique has recently gained popularity in neuroscience research as it allows robust and reliable measurements of glutamate and γ-aminobutyric acid (GABA), the brain’s primary excitatory and inhibitory neurotransmitters, using normal MRI scanners (Nezhad et al, 2019). Research using MRS measurements of GABA has enhanced our understanding of the underlying biochemistry of healthy brain function such as in motor learning (Floyer-Lea et al, 2006) and pain perception (Gussew et al, 2010). Similarly, MRS studies of glutamate have led us to understand the role that the brain’s primary excitatory neurotransmitter plays in visual, sensory and pain processes (see (Mullins, 2019) for a review). In addition, in recent years there have been several studies measuring changes in the concentrations of metabolites as a function of time, either in response to neural activation or immediately pre and post-stimulation, which we term functional MRS (fMRS).

However, the physiological basis for the change in the fMRS signal is not clear. One hypothesis is that neurotransmitters shift between distinct metabolic pools within the neurons and surrounding cells. MRS has differing sensitivity to neurotransmitters in these pools and by controlled stimulation of the brain it is possible to cause a shift of neurotransmitters from one pool to another, resulting in an MRS signal change. However, in order to test the proposed hypothesis it is essential to link the microscopic dynamics of neurotransmitters to the output MRS signal measured in experiments. In this project, we will combine novel methods of MRS acquisition with computer simulations of the underlying physical mechanisms responsible for shaping the spectroscopic signal. The student will learn to collect and analyse MRS data, initially using an existing data-set collected to measure the glutamate response to a visual stimulus in an event-related manner. The student will also receive training in building and implementing a mathematical model linking neural activity to the MRS signal. This model will be coupled to an existing biophysical model of neurotransmitter dynamics, which together will result in a powerful tool to make testable predictions.

The ideal candidate will have a background in a mathematical or computational discipline (physics, mathematics, computer science) and familiarity with computer programming. Some previous exposure to neuroscience will be an advantage, and high motivation to undertake a challenging interdisciplinary topic is essential.

Entry Requirements:
Applications are invited from UK/EU nationals only. Applicants must have obtained, or be about to obtain, at least an upper second class honours degree (or equivalent) in a relevant subject.

Funding Notes

This project is to be funded under the MRC Doctoral Training Partnership. If you are interested in this project, please make direct contact with the Principal Supervisor to arrange to discuss the project further as soon as possible. You MUST also submit an online application form - full details on how to apply can be found on the MRC DTP website

As an equal opportunities institution we welcome applicants from all sections of the community regardless of gender, ethnicity, disability, sexual orientation and transgender status. All appointments are made on merit.


Nezhad FS, Lea-Carnall C, Anton A, JeYoung J, Michou E, Williams S, Parkes LM, ‘Subject Numbers Required in Common Study Designs for Functional GABA Magnetic Resonance Spectroscopy in the Human Brain at 3 T’ European journal of Neuroscience, In Press [2019].

Floyer-Lea A, et al., Rapid modulation of GABA concentration in human sensorimotor cortex during motor learning. J Neurophysiol, 2006. 95: p. 1639–1644.

Lin Y, et al., Investigating the metabolic changes due to visual stimulation using functional proton magnetic resonance spectroscopy at 7 T. J Cereb Blood Flow Metab, 2012. 32: p. 1484-1495.

Gussew A, et al., Time-resolved functional 1H MR spectroscopic detection of glutamate concentration changes in the brain during acute heat pain stimulation. NeuroImage, 2010. 49(2): p. 1895-1902.

Mullins PG, Towards a theory of functional magnetic resonance spectroscopy (fMRS): A meta-analysis and discussion of using MRS to measure changes in neurotransmitters in real time. Scand. J. Psychol., 2018. 59: p. 91-103.

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