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The role of VTA GABA neurons in reward learning

Project Description

Understanding how we learn to make associations between rewarding outcomes and the cues that predict them remains a central challenge for neuroscience and is critical for tackling maladaptations like drug addiction. Recent evidence suggests that GABA neurons in the ventral tegmental area (VTA) may shape the way the brain performs the calculations important for learning, but the details of how they do this are not yet clear. Furthermore, it has recently been found that there are multiple populations of these GABA neurons which are diverse both in terms of their molecular make-up and the anatomical connections they make. This raises the possibility that different populations play different roles in learning and transmit diverse signals to different brain regions. The focus of this PhD is to define how different populations of VTA GABA neurons encode aspects of reward-learning. To achieve this, we will combine cutting-edge neurophysiological techniques and advanced computational models. To record from individual dopamine neurons in behaving mice we will take advantage of a new technique we recently developed (Dodson et al., 2015, 2016). We will then use computational models (Richards et al., 2019) to probe how the signals we record are related to different aspects of the learning process. During the PhD, the student will have the opportunity to learn, and develop their skills in: in vivo recording, animal behaviour, neuroanatomy and immunohistochemistry, microscopy, data analysis, machine learning, deep-learning algorithms, programming, and computational modelling.

Keywords: Dopamine, Reward, GABA, computational modelling, neuroscience

Funding Notes

This project is available under the SWBio DTP programme: Link to SWBio DTP website: View Website

PLEASE ENSURE you select the Faculty of Life Sciences and the programme South West Biosciences Doctoral Training Partnership_(PhD)

Information on eligibility: View Website

DEADLINE FOR APPLICATIONS: Midnight Monday 2 December 2019

How to apply: View Website
Should you require further information please contact


Dodson, P.D., Larvin, J.T., Duffell, J.M., Garas, F.N., Doig, N.M., Kessaris, N., Duguid, I.C., Bogacz, R., Butt, S.J.B.B., and Magill, P.J. (2015). Distinct developmental origins manifest in the specialized encoding of movement by adult neurons of the external globus pallidus. Neuron 86, 501–513.

Dodson, P.D., Dreyer, J.K., Jennings, K.A., Syed, E.C.J., Wade-Martins, R., Cragg, S.J., Bolam, J.P., and Magill, P.J. (2016). Representation of spontaneous movement by dopaminergic neurons is cell-type selective and disrupted in parkinsonism. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. 113, E2180–E2188.

Richards, B.A., Lillicrap, T.P., Beaudoin, P., Bengio, Y., Bogacz, R., Christensen, A., Clopath, C., Costa, R.P., de Berker, A., Ganguli, S., et al. (2019). A deep learning framework for neuroscience. Nat. Neurosci. 22, 1761–1770.

How good is research at University of Bristol in Biological Sciences?

FTE Category A staff submitted: 64.60

Research output data provided by the Research Excellence Framework (REF)

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