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  Understanding the Electric Field in Electrical Stimulation for Biomedical Applications

   Department of Biomedical Engineering

  ,  Applications accepted all year round  Self-Funded PhD Students Only

About the Project

Functional electrical stimulation (FES) is a treatment that applies small electrical charges to a muscle that has become paralysed or weakened, due to damage in the brain or spinal cord. The electrical charge stimulates the muscle to make its usual movement. FES is a technique that can help with swallowing, hand and arm function, and breathing for people with pulmonary disease or stroke. It has several potential future therapeutic uses to retrain voluntary motor functions such as grasping, reaching and walking.  

FES can be applied in several ways: transcutaneous, using electrodes which are placed on the skin; percutaneous, with electrodes inserted; through the skin to make direct contact with the motor nerves; or sub-cutaneous, where the stimulator is implanted and electrodes are attached either to the motor nerves directly, or to the nerve roots at the point where they emerge from the base of the spine. This method stimulates the nerve fibres innervating the muscle. 

Current amplitude and duration of the pulse -width describe the intensity (charge) which determines if a specific neuron is recruited. With low intensity pulses, large low-threshold neurons and neurons close to the electrodes will be recruited at first. Smaller neurons with higher thresholds and neurons located further away from the electrodes will be recruited with increasing charge per pulse. An electrical field is generated between the electrodes, however very little is known of how the electric field propagates in term of magnitude and direction. 

This PhD project will aim to answer this question by developing a model of the electric field through the material (Skin and Muscle), using Maxwell equations and finite element methods. A characterisation is needed to understand the level of penetration with respect to electrodes sizes and polarity separation. An application of this research will be to determine what configuration of transcutaneous stimulation electrodes produces a focal electrical field similar to the one obtained with epidural electrode stimulation. 

The FES Team in Reading aims to restore motor function and improve health of people with spinal cord injury, using Functional Electrical Stimulation. 

 School of Biological Sciences, University of Reading: 

The University of Reading, located west of London, England, provides world-class research education programs. The University’s main Whiteknights Campus is set in 130 hectares of beautiful parkland, a 30-minute train ride to central London and 40 minutes from London Heathrow airport.   

Our School of Biological Sciences conducts high-impact research, tackling current global challenges faced by society and the planet.  Our research ranges from understanding and improving human health and combating disease, through to understanding evolutionary processes and uncovering new ways to protect the natural world.  In 2020, we moved into a stunning new ~£60 million Health & Life Sciences building. This state-of-the-art facility is purpose-built for science research and teaching.  It houses the Cole Museum of Zoology, a café and social spaces. 

In the School of Biological Sciences, you will be joining a vibrant community of ~180 PhD students representing ~40 nationalities. Our students publish in high-impact journals, present at international conferences, and organise a range of exciting outreach and public engagement activities. 

During your PhD at the University of Reading, you will expand your research knowledge and skills, receiving supervision in one-to-one and small group sessions. You will have access to cutting-edge technology and learn the latest research techniques.  We also provide dedicated training in important transferable skills that will support your career aspirations. If English is not your first language, the University's excellent International Study and Language Institute will help you develop your academic English skills. 

The University of Reading is a welcoming community for people of all faiths and cultures.  We are committed to a healthy work-life balance and will work to ensure that you are supported personally and academically. 


Applicants should have a good degree (minimum of a UK Upper Second (2:1) undergraduate degree or equivalent) with Mathematics, Numerical Methods and Electromagnetism as major subjects. Experience in modelling and programming in Matlab/Simulink techniques is highly desirable. Applicants will also need to meet the University’s English Language requirements. We offer pre-sessional courses that can help with meeting these requirements. 

How to apply: 

Apply for a PhD in Biomedical Engineering at

Further information: 


Professor William Holderbaum, email:  

Computer Science (8) Engineering (12) Mathematics (25) Physics (29)

Funding Notes

We welcome applications from self-funded students worldwide for this project.
If you are applying to an international funding scheme, we encourage you to get in contact as we may be able to support you in your application.


Zoulias, I. D., Armengol, M., Poulton, A., Andrews, B., Gibbons, R., Harwin, W. S. and Holderbaum, W. (2019) Novel instrumented frame for standing exercising of users with complete spinal cord injuries. Scientific Reports, 9 (1). 13003. ISSN 2045-2322 doi:
Vanoncini, M., Holderbaum, W. and Andrews, B. J. (2012) Electrical stimulation for trunk control in paraplegia:A feasibility study. Control Engineering Practice, 20 (12). pp. 1247-1258. ISSN 0967-0661 doi:
Please see Professor William Holderbaum’s profile:
Professor William Holderbaum – University of Reading

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