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Understanding how stress affects food-related action choices at the behavioural and neural level to develop cognitive training and neurostimulation treatments for binge eating disorder

   School of Physiology, Pharmacology & Neuroscience

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  Dr Petra Fischer  No more applications being accepted  Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

About the Project

Supervisors: Dr Petra Fischer, University of Bristol, Dr Natalia Lawrence, University of Exeter, Dr Helen Bould, University of Bristol

Summary: Binge eating disorder (BED) causes out-of-control eating episodes that are commonly preceded by stress. This project sets out to understand how neural activity involved in controlling food-related action choices is dysregulated in BED, and how this may be further affected by stress. We will use a novel task to train people with BED to flexibly switch between three distinct food-triggered actions and test whether neurostimulation can facilitate their learning.

Description: Individuals affected by binge eating disorder (BED) regularly experience out-of-control eating episodes that feel unstoppable. The diagnostic criteria for BED include 1) eating an unusually large amount of food despite feeling full, 2) eating rapidly, and 3) marked distress regarding binge eating. BED is distinct from bulimia nervosa in that individuals do not perform compensatory purging behaviours, and over two thirds of those with BED are overweight. A recent study estimated the economic burden of untreated BED in the UK to be more than £3.5 billion annually, due to work impairments and healthcare needs. Binge eating is commonly preceded by stress and anxiety, and despite the rising numbers, current treatment strategies are limited. The first key objective of this PhD project is to characterize how neural activity involved in controlling food-related action choices is altered in people with BED, and how the control mechanisms further deteriorate under stress.

Central to the project is a novel task that was recently developed and tested by the primary supervisor Dr Fischer. The task relies on a custom-built rotational device to obtain a continuous behavioural readout, which will allow detailed analyses of electroencephalography (EEG) data to investigate how neural activity changes when facing food-related action choices. In the first year, the PhD student will organize a focus group with individuals affected by BED to find out which methods of experimentally induced stress are most relevant and refine the design based on their feedback.

The co-supervisor Dr Lawrence has previously developed a Go/NoGo training protocol that results in significant weight loss in people that are overweight, and reductions in eating disorder symptoms in those with binge eating/bulimia. However, despite robust evidence from meta-analyses that such training reduces high-calorie food intake, effects are not seen in everyone, and it is still unclear what mechanisms mediate the effects. Our novel task will allow us to distinguish between inhibitory and attentional mechanisms and is more demanding, and thus might be more effective in helping participants regain agency over food-related action choices.

Our second objective thus is to train participants to flexibly switch between food-triggered action choices to track how neural synchronization patterns develop as the performance improves. Previous recordings in healthy participants performing this task have shown neural synchronization in the 60-90 Hz ‘gamma’ range in frontal cortical areas that are linked to inhibitory control. The PhD student will expand on current EEG analyses to test the hypotheses that gamma synchronization is reduced in participants with BED and can be improved with training.

Finally, recent studies have shown that non-invasive transcranial alternating current (tACS) stimulation can enhance motor learning and improve inhibitory control. Our third objective is to test the utility of gamma tACS in facilitating the training process.

In summary, our series of projects will answer the key research questions:

1) How are the cortical control mechanisms that culminate in food-related action choices altered in people with BED? Which properties are further exacerbated by stress?

2) Can our novel executive control task be used as a training tool to improve compulsive eating behaviour? Is this form of training more or less effective than conventional Go/NoGo tasks?

3) What is the potential for personalized non-invasive neurostimulation to facilitate executive control training? 

Student development: The PhD student will be encouraged to participate in subject-relevant conferences and present their work. The student will also be encouraged to enrol in workshops or summer schools to further develop their analytical skills. We will recommend workshops that are highly relevant to the PhD project, including EEGLAB/fieldtrip workshops, but will also support the broader development of career skills, including writing and presentation skills, planning and running of outreach and patient engagement activities and participating in mentorship schemes.

If you have questions about the project or would like to discuss your application, please contact Dr Petra Fischer [Email Address Removed].

Requirements: GW4 BioMed2 MRC DTP studentships are available to UK and International applicants. Applicants for a studentship must have obtained, or be about to obtain, a UK degree, or the equivalent qualification gained outside the UK, in an appropriate area of medical sciences, computing, mathematics or the physical sciences. Academic qualifications are considered alongside significant relevant non-academic experience.If English is not your first language you will need to meet the English language requirements by the start of the programme.

How to apply: Three live webinars will be hosted in September and October that will provide an overview on what a PhD entails and what the GW4 BioMed2 MRC DTP can offer you. Further information on webinars and on how to apply is here. Enquires about the funding scheme or application process should be directed to [Email Address Removed].


Please submit your application by 5 pm on Wednesday, 2nd November 2022. If you are shortlisted for interview, you will be notified by Friday 16th December 2022. Interviews will be held virtually on 25th and 26th January 2023.

Funding notes: A four-year GW4 BioMed2 MRC DTP studentship that includes tuition fees, stipend, and research training and support funding. Part time study is available. International candidates need to be aware that they will be required to cover the cost of their student visa, healthcare surcharge and other costs of moving to the UK to do a PhD. All studentships will be competitively awarded and there is a limit to the number of international students that we can accept into the programme.

Funding Notes

The GW4 BioMed2 MRC DTP studentship includes full tuition fees at the UK/Home rate, a stipend at the minimum UKRI rate, a Research & Training Support Grant (RTSG) valued between £2-5k per year and a £300 annual travel and conference grant based on a 4 year, full-time studentship. Part-time study is also available and these funding arrangements will be adjusted pro-rata for part-time studentships. International candidates need to be aware that they will be required to cover the cost of their student visa, healthcare surcharge and other costs of moving to the UK to do a PhD.

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