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Self-Funded PhD Post in Computational Neuroscience Investigating the Neurobiological Underpinning of Simple Decision-Making in the Xenopus laevis Tadpole

School of Pharmacy (Medway Campus)

About the Project

Like all animals, the hatchling Xenopus laevis tadpole needs to make the ‘right’ motor decisions in order to adapt and survive in its environment. To do this it must detect, integrate and process sensory information within the brain. A common feature of motor decisions, in contrast to simple reflex responses, is that they are relatively slow and variable. Our recent studies using the Xenopus tadpole have shown long and variable build-up of excitability in reticulospinal neurons, which are essential in driving swimming. This feature in tadpoles possesses fundamental characteristics of decision-making as seen in higher vertebrate brain regions. Our extensive knowledge of the tadpole central nervous system reveals that activity in the already-known sensory pathway neurons cannot account for the long, variable delays seen in both reticulospinal neuron firing and initiation of swimming. Our recent work identified candidate neuronal activity within the tadpole hindbrain responsible for the slow and variable firing patterns leading up to a threshold for motor decision-making. In addition, by building small models of neuron networks that excite reticulospinal neurons, we showed that inserting a recurrent excitatory network within the brainstem sensory pathway produced long and variable delays to the firing of reticulospinal neurons like seen in our in situ electrophysiological recordings. We propose that small recurrent neuron networks provide a basic form of sensory memory and a simple decision-making mechanism. Our overarching aim is to elucidate the detailed neurobiological processes underlying this motor decision-making in the Xenopus tadpole.

PhD post in collaboration with Dr Joel Tabak-Sznajder and Prof. Roman Borisyuk (University of Exeter):

This interdisciplinary project will combine electrophysiology with modelling of neuronal networks. The successful candidate will characterise the electrical properties and recurrent synaptic connections of the neurons responsible for the delays to motor decision-making. They will then use this information to build mathematical models of the decision-making network to understand what causes these delays.

The prospective PhD student will be based at Medway School of Pharmacy (Kent), but will be expected to spend considerable amount of time at University of Exeter in order to benefit from close supervision by Dr Tabak-Sznajder and Prof Borisyuk. We are looking for a candidate with strong computational background. We will provide extensive training in neurobiological techniques.

Entry requirements:

Ideal candidates will have a strong background and interest in Neuroscience/Neurobiology. Applicants should have or expect to obtain a Masters degree and/or a first or upper second class honours degree (or equivalent) in Computational Neuroscience or a closely related subject.

How to Apply:

To apply please go to

You will need to apply through the online application form on the main University website. Please note that you will be expected to provide personal details, education and employment history and supporting documentation (curriculum vitae, transcript of results, two academic references). You are not required to submit a research proposal.

Funding Notes

The project is a self-funded opportunity available to both Home/EU and International students.

Applicants must have access to funding to cover tuition fees, living costs and any related project costs (i.e. bench fees).


1. Messa & Koutsikou 2019 Proc. Physiol. Soc. 43: PC240
2. Roberts et al. 2019 Proc. Royal Soc. B 286:
3. Koutsikou et al. 2018 J.Physiol 596: 6219-33
4. Borisyuk et al. 2017 BioSystems 161: 3-14

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