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Noise-cancelling technology for clock neurones

Project Description

The University of Exeter EPSRC DTP (Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council Doctoral Training Partnership) is offering up to 4 fully funded doctoral studentships for 2019/20 entry. Students will be given sector-leading training and development with outstanding facilities and resources. Studentships will be awarded to outstanding applicants, the distribution will be overseen by the University’s EPSRC Strategy Group in partnership with the Doctoral College.


Professor Jan Sieber, Department of Mathematics, College of Engineering, Mathematics and Physical Sciences
Dr Joel Tabak, College of Medicine and Health
Dr Mino Belle, College of Medicine and Health
Krasimira Tsaneva-Atanasova, Department of Mathematics, College of Engineering, Mathematics and Physical Sciences

Project description:

One of the most fascinating phenomena in nature is that small random disturbances can create large-scale effects. Mathematically, this is described by the theory of nonlinear dynamics. One essential process governed by this theory is the electrical communication between neurons. These communications are essential to the network of neurons controlling our daily rhythm, the circadian clock. This circadian clock controls the timing of many functions in our bodies, including sleep, and is responsible for jet lag. The clock neurons exhibit a 24-hour pattern in their electrical activity: a high level of activity during the day, and a lower level at night. This electrical activity is highly sensitive to current noise due to random communication events between neurons. To understand how the interactions between neurons generate a precise 24-hour pattern, we must understand how noise affects electrical activity during the day and during the night.

This funded PhD studentship will investigate how small noise drives and controls the activity of clock neurons. The student will develop a method to remove noise from live, electrically active neurons, using techniques from dynamical systems theory and feedback control theory. We already have a proof of concept for this methodology, which is similar in concept to noise-cancelling headphones. Being able to remove noise in circadian clock neurons will enable us to understand the contribution of noise to our circadian clock and to gain understanding in one of the most intriguing question in circadian biology: how does electrical activity in a network of neurons helps to set a 24-hour period?

The PhD studentship will benefit from close collaboration with Joel Tabak and Mino Belle neuroscience laboratories. These labs perform experiments with live neurons and have equipment to control electrical activity from these neurons in real time. Thus, the student will have the opportunity to immediately test how their methods perform in a real biological system. This will allow them to use the experimental results as a guide to refine their methodology. By interacting with students in Tabak and Belle laboratories, the student will also gain important experience in working within a multidisciplinary scientific team. Depending on the student’s interests and progress during the PhD studentship, there will also be the opportunity to learn electrophysiology in order to record the electrical activity from live neurones.

This project would suit a student keen to 1) learn and apply new maths concepts (nonlinear dynamical systems, stochastic processes); 2) interact with people from different scientific fields; and 3) present their results at national and international conferences.

Funding Notes

For successful eligible applicants the studentship comprises:

- An index-linked stipend for up to 3.5 years full time (currently £14,777 per annum for 2018/19), pro-rata for part-time students.
- Payment of University tuition fees (UK/EU)
- Research Training Support Grant (RTSG) of £5,000 over 3.5 years, or pro-rata for part-time students

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