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Projects

On this page you can find out about PhD opportunities currently advertised in Psychology. Click on a research area or a project title below to find out more.

We have a limited number of departmental scholarships available each year, to cover tuition fees and living expenses for some of our PhD students. These are advertised here from November-January to start in October each year.  We also accept applications all year round from students who are able to fund themselves or who have another source of funding.

Funding your PhD
See also: Tuition fees

It is a good idea to contact the supervisor of any PhD opportunity you want to apply for, before you submit your application, to check their availability for your preferred start date.

Once you have identified a project, a supervisor and a source of funding, you can complete the University's postgraduate online application form.

Postgraduate online application form

If you would like any more information or have any questions, please contact Postgraduate Research Admissions:

Telephone: +44 (0)114 222 6583
Email: psy-pgr@sheffield.ac.uk

Do you have your own idea for a project?

Find a potential supervisor by visiting our research webpages. Contact a member of academic staff to find out about PhD opportunities in their area.

Research

Centres for Doctoral Training

Other funded PhD opportunities are available through the Centres for Doctoral Training that our staff contribute to. Visit the webpages for these centres to find out more about their projects.

EPSRC Centre for Doctoral Training in Energy Storage and its Applications
– UK, EU and international applicants

Centres for Doctoral Training at the University of Sheffield

Entry requirements

We ask for a good honours degree of 2:1 or above and generally a masters (merit or distinction) in Psychology or a related discipline. We welcome applications from applicants currently studying for their masters degree. In this case, if we decide to make an offer, this offer will be conditional on the results of your masters.

Our decision on whether to offer you a place will also be based on a brief outline (no more than one side of A4) giving the ideas you would bring to the research and the reasons for your interest in this area, an up-to-date CV, your transcripts to date and two recent academic references. You should include this information with your application. Students will also need to meet our English language requirements. Find out more about English language requirements on our webpage for international students:

International students


Clinical psychology

Find out more about our clinical psychology research

Early engagement processes in psychological treatments for depression

Primary supervisor: Professor Gillian Hardy

Co-supervisor/s: Professor Michael Barkham

Project description: There is evidence that psychological therapies are effective for the treatment of depression. However, not all patients benefit and many patients do not complete their full course of treatment, with the likelihood that their outcomes will be poorer than for those who have completed therapy. Early engagement in therapy may reduce the likelihood of dropping-out of treatment and contribute to the overall effectiveness of therapy. This project will involve developing engagement markers and therapist activities in early sessions of treatments for depression and examining the impact of the quality of engagement on treatment outcomes

Contact: Professor Gillian Hardy

Understanding and preventing relapse after CBT

Primary supervisor: Dr Jaime Delgadillo

Co-supervisor/s: Dr Steven Kellett

Project description: Cognitive and behavioural interventions can be helpful for depression and anxiety problems. However, it is also known that as many as 50% of patients experience a relapse within 2 years of treatment. Some conditions, like depression and obsessive compulsive disorder are especially relapse prone. Given the importance of ensuring that patients remain well after treatment, a number of studies have emerged in support of strategies such as pharmacotherapy combined with CBT, booster sessions, continuation-phase CBT and mindfulness based interventions. Although such relapse prevention interventions seem promising, some patients relapse despite receiving ongoing support with these approaches. Conversely, some patients actually remain well after brief and low intensity CBT. We still know relatively little about why some patients are more or less relapse prone. Identifying factors that influence the risk of relapse might help us to enhance the durability of acute-phase treatment effects and to make best use of more intensive relapse prevention strategies (i.e., continuation-phase interventions).

This research programme has two linked objectives. The first objective is to integrate research evidence on factors associated with relapse after CBT, through a systematic review of the literature. This literature review will help to generate hypotheses about factors that may be associated with vulnerability to relapse. The second objective is to test these hypotheses empirically, by collecting and analysing data in collaboration with routine care services that offer CBT.

Contact: Dr Jaime Delgadillo or Dr Steven Kellett

Psychological interventions for dual diagnosis

Primary supervisor: Dr Jaime Delgadillo

Co-supervisor/s: Professor Petra Meier

Project description: People with drug or alcohol addictions often have considerable mental health problems. This combination of problems (dual diagnosis) is known to complicate treatment and is associated with poor health and social outcomes. For example, dependent substance users are up to 5 times more likely to have depression or anxiety disorders by comparison to people who don’t use substances frequently. People with this combination of problems are also at greater risk of treatment dropout, hospitalization and suicide. In the UK, it has been estimated that up to 70% of addiction service users are likely to have clinically significant depression and/or anxiety problems. There is a rapidly growing evidence-base which shows that psychological interventions for dual diagnosis can help to alleviate distress and manage substance use. Several trial-based intervention manuals are available, which tailor interventions to the complex needs of this client group (see: www.emeraldinsight.com/toc/add/9/2%2F3). However, evidence-based psychological interventions are rarely available to clients undergoing addictions treatment and there is still a considerable gap between evidence and routine practice.

The aims of this research programme are to support the application and evaluation of evidence-based psychological interventions in routine addictions treatment. Two strands of work may be pursued by PhD / DClinPsy students interested in this area: (1) the training of substance use workers in delivering evidence-based psychosocial interventions for dual diagnosis ; (2) assessing the feasibility and acceptability of applying these interventions in routine addictions treatment.

Contact: Dr Jaime Delgadillo

Advancing personalised care: treatment selection and outcome prediction research

Primary supervisor: Dr Jaime Delgadillo

Co-supervisor/s: Professor Michael Barkham

Project description: Personalized medicine, defined as “the use of marker-assisted diagnosis and targeted therapies” (Ginsburg & McCarthy, 2001), has enhanced health and preventive care for conditions such as cardiovascular problems, cancer and osteoporosis. By comparison, psychological services lag behind in the development and application of evidence-based personalization methods. Some notable advances in this regard are the development of patient profiling, treatment-selection and outcome prediction methods in psychological care. These methods use patient-data (e.g., demographics, psychometric tests and clinical assessment information) to predict which patients are more likely to benefit from specific treatment options, to assess how patients are responding to treatment and to detect risks early enough to prevent poor outcomes. Emerging studies in this field have shown that it is possible to improve the outcomes of therapy when therapists (and patients) receive ‘feedback’ using outcome monitoring and prediction systems. Furthermore, it appears that patients with certain characteristics tend to respond more favourably to certain treatments, for example CBT versus IPT for depression, or low versus high intensity CBT for common mental health problems.

The aims of this research programme are to develop treatment selection and outcome prediction methods for use in routine psychological care. Two strands of work may be pursued by PhD / DClinPsy students interested in this area: (1) the development and validation of prediction methods; (2) assessing the feasibility and acceptability of applying these methods in routine care.

Contact: Dr Jaime Delgadillo or Professor Michael Barkham

Intrusive thoughts and paranoia

Primary supervisor: Dr Georgina Rowse

Co-supervisor/s:

Project description: Intrusive thoughts pop into the mind seemingly unbidden; some of them can be distressing and lead to unhelpful coping. These kinds of thoughts are a common experience for people who experience obsessive-compulsive problems. However, little is known about the experience of such thoughts in individuals who experience paranoia. This PhD topic will begin exploratory work into the field of paranoia and intrusive thoughts, investigating the experience of these thoughts in non-clinical, sub-clinical and clinical samples. The research is likely to include the consideration of various aspects of cognition, coping, affect and behaviour. The relationship between these factors and the onset, maintenance and exacerbation of experience of paranoia could be explored. It is hoped this programme of research will have both theoretical and clinical implications.

Contact: Dr Georgina Rowse

Paranoia and trust

Primary supervisor: Professor Richard Bentall

Abstract: Paranoid delusions are the most common symptom of psychosis but less severe forms of paranoid ideation and mistrust are common in everyday life and lie on a continuum with the rarer clinical forms (Elahi, Perez Algorta, Varese, McIntyre, & Bentall, 2017). Previous research has shown that attachment-threatening early life experiences (Bentall, Wickham, Shevlin, & Varese, 2012), insecure attachment styles (Wickham, Sitko, & Bentall, 2015), low self-esteem and impaired theory of mind (Bentall et al., 2009) all contribute to the risk of experiencing paranoia. Although conventional CBT strategies for addressing paranoid beliefs suggest that they are sometimes amenable to rational disputation, in clinical practice patients often report feeling paranoid despite knowing that their beliefs are ill-founded. The idea that implicit, affect-laden processes drive paranoid thinking is consistent with the observation that ordinary people make rapid, automatic judgments of trust when encountering unfamiliar faces (Todorov, Mende-Siedlecki, & Dotsch, 2013). This research will use experimental measures to examine the role of automatic, implicit processes in mistrust and paranoid thinking, how these processes relate to early attachment experiences, and how they interact with other paranoia-related process, particularly self-esteem and theory of mind. Initial studies will be on healthy participants stratified according to paranoid traits but later studies may be with patients suffering from paranoid delusions. Depending on the second supervisor, it may be possible to include ERP methods and/or to carry out pilot studies of evaluative condition methods designed to manipulate implicit judgments (see (Baccus, Baldwin, & Packer, 2004)).

References:    Baccus, J. R., Baldwin, M. W., & Packer, D. J. (2004). Increasing implicit self-esteem through classical conditioning. Psychological Science, 15, 498-502. doi:10.1111/j.0956-7976.2004.00708.x Bentall, R. P., Rowse, G., Shryane, N., Kinderman, P., Howard, R., Blackwood, N., . . . Corcoran, R. (2009). The cognitive and affective structure of paranoid delusions: A transdiagnostic investigation of patients with schizophrenia spectrum disorders and depression. Archives of General Psychiatry, 66, 236-247. Bentall, R. P., Wickham, S., Shevlin, M., & Varese, F. (2012). Do specific early life adversities lead to specific symptoms of psychosis? A study from the 2007 The Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey. Schizophrenia Bulletin, 38, 734-740. Elahi, A., Perez Algorta, G., Varese, F., McIntyre, J. C., & Bentall, R. P. (2017). Do paranoid delusions exist on a continuum with subclinical paranoia? A multi-method taxometric study Schizophrenia Research. doi:10.1016/j.schres.2017.03.022 Todorov, A., Mende-Siedlecki, P., & Dotsch, R. (2013). Social judgments from faces. Current Opinion in Neurobiology, 23, 373-380. Wickham, S., Sitko, K., & Bentall, R. P. (2015). Insecure attachment is associated with paranoia but not hallucinations in psychotic patients: The mediating role of negative self esteem. Psychological Medicine, 45, 1495-1507. doi:10.1017/S0033291714002633

Contact: Professor Richard Bentall

Understanding how therapy works for the eating disorders

Primary supervisor: Professor Glenn Waller

Project description: Clinicians and researchers have suggested a number of factors that influence the outcome of psychological treatment for the eating disorders. Those factors have been suggested to include the therapeutic techniques involved, the personality of the patient, the working alliance, early behavioural change, sudden symptom reduction, and the personality and delivery style of the therapist. This PhD will address a subset of those factors, in order to develop recommendations about improving evidence-based treatments. The research will involve: the validation of a novel measure of outcomes; appraisal of factors that do (or do not) drive or influence clinical improvement; and developing profiles of patients who are likely to respond to different therapeutic factors.

Contact: Professor Glenn Waller

Body image treatment: The role of mirror exposure in reducing eating pathology

Primary supervisor: Professor Glenn Waller

Project description: The most effective treatment for negative body image is mirror exposure, reducing avoidance and providing accurate feedback on appearance. This method is effective in working with clinical and non-eating-disordered individuals. However, it does not work to the same degree for all individuals, and is not implemented in the same way by all clinicians. This research programme will consider how to optimise the impact of mirror exposure for the individual with a negative body image, addressing factors that are localised in the sufferer (e.g., reassurance-seeking), in the clinician (e.g., fear of distressing the sufferer), and in the method used (e.g., the impact of distraction techniques during the exposure period).

Contact: Professor Glenn Waller

Self-disgust and psychological wellbeing in ‘Bigorexia’ (muscle dysmorphia)

Primary supervisor: Professor Paul Overton

Bigorexia or muscle dysmorphia is a disorder which causes someone to see themselves as small, despite actually being big and muscular. Individuals obsess about being inadequately muscular and lean when, in fact, they are not. With bigorexia, compulsions may include spending endless hours in the gym or countless amounts of money on supplements, deviant eating patterns and/or substance (e.g. steroid) abuse. Bigorexia is associated with significant levels of depression and anxiety, similar to the related eating disorders of anorexia and bulimia. Our previous work suggests that self-disgust – present in anorexia – pathologically connects body image to psychological wellbeing, and the aim of this project will be to examine the role of self-disgust in psychological wellbeing in bigorexia. The project will have three mixed-method components: 1. Interviews with people who have identified ‘bigorexic’ issues; 2. Quantitative investigation of the relationship between self-disgust and psychological wellbeing in bigorexia (possibly comparing bigorexia with other eating disorders); 3. Development of a potential experimental intervention to reduce self-disgust in bigorexics. The project will not only identify a potential causative factor in depression/anxiety in bigorexia, but it will also potentially move the field forward by suggesting new strategies for therapeutic intervention. Bell, K., Coulthard, H., & Wildbur, D. (2017). Self-disgust within eating disordered groups: Associations with anxiety, disgust sensitivity and sensory processing. European Eating Disorders Review. E-published ahead of print; doi:10.1002/erv.2529. McFarland, MB & Kaminski, PL (2009) Men, muscles, and mood: The relationship between self-concept, dysphoria, and body image disturbance. Eating Behaviors, 10 (1), 68-70. Powell, P.A., Overton, P.G., & Simpson, J. (2014). The revolting self: An interpretative phenomenological analysis of the experience of self-disgust in females with depressive symptoms. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 70 (6), 562-578.

Contact: Professor Paul Overton

The physiological roots of behaviour in the therapy room: Why do clinicians drift away from evidence-based practice?

Primary supervisor: Professor Glenn Waller

Co-supervisor/s: Dr Liat Levita

Project description: While we know that clinicians deliver psychotherapy ineffectively in many cases, we are only beginning to understand why they do so. One key element is the clinicians\' own levels of anxiety. However, anxiety is a multifaceted construct, with cognitive, behavioural and physiological elements. This PhD will centre on understanding psychotherapy practice as it is influenced by the different facets of therapists\' own emotions, and will use a mixed methods approach, including experimental and psychophysiological approaches.

Contact: Professor Glenn Waller  or Dr Liat Levita

Treating compulsive hoarding

Primary supervisor: Dr Steven Kellett

Project description: In recent years the previously neglected area of compulsive hoarding have come under increased research scrutiny and clinical models have been tested. However, the evidence base for treatment of hoarding is thin and evaluations have tended to lack true scientific rigor. This doctorate would make use of randomized controlled trial methodologies to investigate the clinical efficacy of various cognitive therapies. The projects would to suit someone who has ambitions to become a clinical psychologist.

Contact: Dr Steven Kellett

Treating compulsive acquisition

Primary supervisor: Dr Steven Kellett

Project description: In recent years the previously neglected areas of compulsive acquisition has come under increased research scrutiny and clinical models have been tested. However, the evidence base for the disorder is thin and evaluations have tended to lack true scientific rigor. This doctorate would make use of randomized controlled trial methodologies to investigate the clinical efficacy of various cognitive therapies. The projects would to suit someone who has ambitions to become a clinical psychologist.

Contact: Dr Steven Kellett

What use to patients make of therapy between sessions?

Primary supervisor: Professor Gillian Hardy

Project description: There is evidence that psychological therapies are effective for the treatment of psychological distress. Most therapies involves meeting with the therapist once a week for a maximum of one hour. Some therapies, particularly Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, set homework to be carried out between therapy sessions. Other therapies may not do this, but there is the expectation that processing work will continue and that the patient will reflect on their therapy sessions. This project will investigate this inter-session work from patients\\\' and therapists\\\' perspectives.

Contact: Professor Gillian Hardy


Cognition and Cognitive Neuroscience

Analysing Big Data to understand learning

Primary supervisor: Dr Tom Stafford

Project description: I have access to large existing data sets which contain the potential to show skill development on real-world tasks for large numbers of people (i.e. n>1,000,000 in domains of chess and online maths education). Using theory from the cognitive science of learning and advanced statistical models we will test theories of what makes learning most effective. The ambition will be to design more effective learning practices. You will finish this PhD with a deep understanding of the psychology of learning and a skill set encompassing state-of-the-art open-source analytics tools.

Stafford, T. & Haasnoot, E. (2017). Testing sleep consolidation in skill learning: a field study using an online game. Topics in Cognitive Science. 9(2), 485-496.

Contact: Dr Tom Stafford

Online discussion; augmenting argumentation with chatbots

Primary supervisor: Dr Tom Stafford

Co-supervisior: Dr Andreas Vlachos (computer science)

Project description: Argumentation - the systematic exchange of reasoning supporting or undermining an idea - enhances communication between individuals. Unreliable chains of thought are weeded out, reliable ones survive. Striking evidence for this is that reasonings tasks which provoke systematic errors when considered by individuals choice can be solved correctly by small groups, if they are given time for discussion. Chatbots with natural language processing create an opportunity to have artificial agents interact with group deliberation, and make it more effective. In this way, the strengths of human and artificial intelligence can augment each other

Reading: Mercier, H., & Sperber, D. (2011). Why do humans reason? Arguments for an argumentative theory. Behavioral and brain sciences, 34(02), 57-74.

Contact: Dr Tom Stafford

Improving skill learning

Primary supervisor: Dr Tom Stafford

Project description: Self-guided practice is systematically biased so as to produce sub-optimal improvements in skill learning (Huang, Shadmehr & Diedrichsen, 2008). In motor learning, people tend to practice what they already know - an analogue of ‘confirmation bias’ in belief testing. This bias leads to the under-exploration of the complex parameter space of skilled motor actions, hindering us from learning optimal movements. We have developed a laboratory motor skill learning task and shown that participants show just such a reliance on what they already know, and that this hampers optimal skill learning (Stafford et al, 2012).

The aims of this project would be

1. To show that interventions to decrease reliance on what is already known (i.e. to increase exploration via perturbation and/or handicap training) improve skill learning in our laboratory task.

2. Develop metrics which allow us to diagnose when interventions in training will be most effective.

(and, stretch goal)

3. Test if laboratory interventions which can improve rate of skill learning can generalise to athletes learning a new athletic skill

 

Huang, V. S., Shadmehr, R., & Diedrichsen, J. (2008). Active Learning: Learning a Motor Skill Without a Coach. Journal of Neurophysiology, 100(2), 879 –887.

Stafford, T., Thirkettle, M., Walton, T., Vautrelle, N., Hetherington, L., Port, M., Gurney, K., et al. (2012). A Novel Task for the Investigation of Action Acquisition. PLoS ONE, 7(6), e37749. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0037749


Contact: Dr Tom Stafford
Brain Imaging anxiety and fear in the adolescent brain

Primary supervisor: Dr Liat Levita

Project description: Adolescence is a prolonged developmental period in the transition to adulthood that is characterised by significant changes in behaviour, cognition, emotion, and on going brain maturation processes. It is a period associated with high levels of emotionality, anxiety and also higher levels of harmful risk taking behaviours (e.g., Casey et al, 2008; Burnett et al., 2010; Steinberg et al., 2008). There is now a large body of work showing that heightened risk-taking during adolescence is associated with hyper-potentiated responses to reward and reward –predicting stimuli . This work, while influential had tended to shadow work that focuses on how adolescents respond to harmful aversive events. This made some assume that adolescents are hypo-responsive to threat, which is why they take risks. However, our work and others show that that is not the case (e.g., Levita et al, 2015; Howsley & Levita, 2017). Rather, previous research has suggested that adolescents exhibit greater threat responses as well as have greater difficulty extinguishing such responses compared to adults. Furthermore, several fMRI studies have observed greater activity in the amygdala and ventral striatum in adolescents encountering aversive stimuli, compared to children and adults (Britton et al., 2013; Galván & McGlennen, 2013; Hare et al., 2008). These regions, as part of the limbic system, have been heavily implicated in emotional processing and motivational influences on behaviour (Cardinal et al., 2002; Everitt et al., 1999), with the striatum shown to have specific responsibilities regarding the processing of threatening and aversive stimuli (Jensen et al., 2003; Levita, Hoskin & Champi, 2012; Pohlack et al., 2012; Seymour et al., 2007). In spite of the above studies the area of how adolescents process negative stimuli and outcomes is still relatively unexplored and there are still many unanswered questions. Therefore, this project has been designed to further explore the neurological underpinnings of fear learning and extinction in adolescence and answer the following question - If adolescents respond more to threat, why do they take more risks and why are they more anxious? State of the art electrophysiological (EEG) and fMRI techniques will be used to investigate this question.

Contact: Dr Liat Levita

Brain Imaging reward and avoidance circuits in the adolescent brain

Primary supervisor: Dr Liat Levita

Project description: Adolescence is a prolonged developmental period in the transition to adulthood that is characterised by significant changes in behaviour, cognition, emotion, and on going brain maturation processes. It is a period associated with high levels of emotionality, anxiety and also higher levels of harmful risk taking behaviours (e.g., Casey et al, 2008; Steinberg et al., 2008). The prefrontal cortex (PFC) is a brain area crucially involved in action selection, and reward and avoidance mediated learning, and it is a brain region which is still not fully mature during adolescence. The aim of this project is to explore further how the PFC and related regions (Levita et al, 2015; Howsley & Levita, 2017) process information during adolescence (especially positive and negative outcomes). Unravelling the neuronal circuits underlying these functions in adolescence is essential to understand their operation and understand why adolescents take more risks and why it is an age of enhanced vulnerability to developing mental health disorders and also an age associated with a significant risk of developing disorders of drug abuse and misuse. State of the art electrophysiological (EEG) and fMRI techniques will be used to investigate this question.

Contact: Dr Liat Levita

Learning-dependent potentiation in development - functional significance

Primary supervisor: Dr Liat Levita

Project description: The reinforcing effects of appetitive and aversive outcomes on approach and avoidance behaviour are well established. However, their influence on perceptual processes is less well explored. Consequently this project will investigate the mechanisms that underlie learning-dependent potentiation to appetitive and aversive signals of danger in sensory areas. It will examine, acquisition, consolidation and extinction of learning-dependent potentiation and will involve a series of studies using EEG to examine the functional significance of learning dependent potentiation in adults and adolescents. ERPs of interest will be the N170 and the late positive potential. Exploratory part of this project will be to also examine how learning-dependent potentiation may relate to risk-taking and anxiety levels in the transition from adolescence to adulthood.

Reading:

  • Levita, L., Howsley, P., Jordan, J., & Johnston, P. (2015). Potentiation of the early visual response to learned danger signals in adults and adolescents. Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci, 10(2), 269-277
  • Gable, P. A., & Harmon-Jones, E. (2010). Late Positive Potential to Appetitive Stimuli and Local Attentional Bias. Emotion, 10(3), 441-446.

Contact: Dr Liat Levita

Heterogeneity within the autism spectrum

Primary supervisor: Dr Elizabeth Milne

Project description: Autism spectrum conditions are highly variable and heterogeneous. This project will establish whether subgroups of individuals with autism can be detected within a large database of phenotypic data. Using data from the Simons Simplex Collection, a comprehensive multi-modelling approach will be taken to establish whether a sub-type structure can be empirically derived within the data. Work arising from this project has the potential to have significant impact on our understanding of autism spectrum conditions, in particular heterogeneity within the autism spectrum.

Contact: Dr Elizabeth Milne

Attention and Perception in autism spectrum conditions

Primary supervisor: Dr Elizabeth Milne

Project description: This project will investigate perception and attention in individuals with autism spectrum conditions using a mixture of behavioural psychophysics and EEG methodologies. We are particularly interested in understanding the nature of atypical perception experienced by individuals with ASC; understanding the neural origins of atypical perception in ASC; and developing techniques / interventions that can help to harness the strengths that atypical perception can confer on cognition.

References:

  • Milne, E., Scope, A., Pascalis, O., Buckley, D., & Makeig, S. (2009). Independent component analysis reveals atypical electroencephalographic activity during visual perception in individuals with autism. Biological psychiatry,65(1), 22-30.
  • Milne, E., Dunn, S. A., Freeth, M., & Rosas-Martinez, L. (2013). Visual search performance is predicted by the degree to which selective attention to features modulates the ERP between 350 and 600ms. Neuropsychologia.

Contact: Dr Elizabeth Milne

Translating cognitive science into the real world: Insights into autism

Primary supervisor: Dr Megan Freeth

Project description: What captures attention, and what impact does this have on other aspects of cognition? The answer may be different depending on whether you are autistic or not. The majority of our knowledge of how human cognition works comes from computer-based tasks but my lab has recently been finding that this does not tell us the whole story. We need to complement our computer based studies with studies that are conducted where genuine interactions with social partners can take place. This project will use this approach to investigate whether findings from cognitive science really do translate into real world phenomena.

References:
Freeth, M., Foulsham, T., & Kingstone, A. (2013). What affects social attention? Social presence, eye contact and autistic traits. PLoS One8(1), e53286.
Risko, E. F., Laidlaw, K. E., Freeth, M., Foulsham, T., & Kingstone, A. (2012). Social attention with real versus reel stimuli: toward an empirical approach to concerns about ecological validity. Frontiers in human neuroscience6.
Contact: Dr Megan Freeth
Identifying the neural processes underlying skilled anticipation in sport

Primary supervisor: Dr Richard Rowe

Co-supervisor/s: Dr Elizabeth Milne

Project description: A large body of evidence indicates that skilled sports players can anticipate the actions of their opponents more accurately than novices, for example in sports such as tennis. This project will develop video simulation measures of anticipatory skill and assess the neural processes underlying expert performance using EEG. This work will build on the group\'s current work that has recently identified a role for the Human Mirror Neuron system in anticipation of this sort. The student will receive training in state-of-the art EEG analysis available at Sheffield.

References:

  • Denis, D., Rowe, R., Williams, A. M., & Milne, E. The role of cortical sensorimotor oscillations in action anticipation. Neuroimage. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.neuroimage.2016.10.022
  • Rowe, R., Horswill, M. S., Kronvall-Parkinson, M., Poulter, D. R., & McKenna, F. P. (2009). The Effect of Disguise on Novice and Expert Tennis Players\' Anticipation Ability. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 21(2), 178-185.

Contact: Dr Richard Rowe  or Dr Elizabeth Milne

The role of reminding in learning

Primary supervisor: Dr Katarzyna Zawadzka

The traditional approach to memory emphasises a distinction between encoding – the process of committing information to memory – and retrieval – the process of accessing information stored in memory. Recently, however, the field has witnessed a surge in studies looking to overcome this distinction. Research on the topic of reminding (e.g., Tullis, Benjamin, &Ross, 2014) shows how repeated episodes of encoding of the same or somehow related materials benefit from spontaneous retrieval of the previous encoding episodes. The work on reminding is in its early stages and thus the exact determinants and consequences of reminding remain inchoate. The present project will provide an opportunity for conducting empirical investigations at the cutting edge of memory studies by focusing on the conditions necessary for eliciting the instances of reminding and on the effects reminding has on learning. The first theme within the project will be devoted to elucidating the role of similarity between different encoding episodes in eliciting reminding, with an overarching prediction that reminding is governed by similarity both in a superficial form of to-be-remembered elements (e.g., modality of presentation, visual context) and in processing to which to-be-remembered elements are subjected (e.g., whether processing of both the original and repeated episode necessitates access to the meanings of the processed words). The second theme will be devoted to examining the consequences reminding has on learning, by looking not only at memory for the elements shared by the original and repeated study episodes but also for the elements unique to these episodes. Overall, the project will thus aim at developing a comprehensive picture of how reminding works in the laboratory. It will thus also constitute a good background for further applied work on how the phenomenon of reminding can be used in educational setting to improve students’ learning. Tullis, J. G., Benjamin, A. S., & Ross, B. H. (2014). The reminding effect: Presentation of associates enhances memory for related words in a list. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 143(4), 1526-1540.

Contact: Dr Katarzyna Zawadzka

The influence of confidence on memory and metamemory conformity

Primary supervisor: Dr Katarzyna Zawadzka

In everyday life, people often complement what they remember with information from external sources, such as media, books, or other people. In the latter case, an optimal approach is to rely on memories of people whom we trust to be accurate, but ignore information from those whose accuracy we doubt. It is perhaps easy to establish memory reliability for people we know well (e.g., family members, work colleagues), as we know how accurate these people’s memory is in the long run, but sometimes we are confronted with potentially important memory-based information from someone we do not know well. In such a situation, it might be necessary to establish the reliability of one’s memory on the basis of the cues at hand, which might – or might not – be diagnostic of accuracy. One such a cue is confidence the other person expresses in their memories, with the usual finding being that people tend to follow other person’s memory cues more often when that person is highly confident those cues are accurate than when confidence is moderate or low. The aim of this project will be to build on recent work in the area (Zawadzka, Krogulska, Button, Higham, & Hanczakowski, 2016) in order to investigate in a systematic manner those aspects of confidence exhibited by an unknown person supplying external memory information (i.e., external source) that determine how likely another person is to use these cues (i.e., conform) in their own subsequent memory report. By testing predictions derived from memory, social, judgement and decision making, and eyewitness studies, the aim of the project will be to show the boundary conditions for confidence-dependent conformity. Zawadzka, K., Krogulska, A., Button, R., Higham, P. A., & Hanczakowski, M. (2016). Memory, metamemory, and social cues: Between conformity and resistance. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 45, 181-199.

Contact: Dr Katarzyna Zawadzka

Understanding the mechanisms underlying cognitive training effects

Primary supervisor: Claudia Von Bastian

Can the repetitive practice of cognitive tasks – as in ‘brain training’ programs – effectively enhance cognitive abilities such as reasoning? Even after more than 10 years of intensive research efforts, this question is still highly controversial, with prior studies and meta-analyses yielding inconsistent results. However, one robust and replicable finding is that trainees strongly improve in the tasks they practiced. In this project, the PhD student will investigate the mechanisms underlying those improvements during training and examine whether and how they can explain the presence or absence of gains in novel tasks. This project will involve acquiring advanced analytical and computational modelling skills. Reading: Melby-Lervåg, M., Redick, T. S., & Hulme, C. (2016). Working memory training does not improve performance on measures of intelligence or other measures of “far transfer”: Evidence from a meta-analytic review. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 11(4), 512–534. http://doi.org/10.3837/tiis.0000.00.000 von Bastian, C.C., & Oberauer, K. (2014). Effects and mechanisms of working memory training: A review. Psychological Research, 78(6), 803-820. doi: 10.1007/s00426-013-0524-6

Contact: Claudia Von Bastian

Understanding the mechanisms underlying cognitive training effects

Primary supervisorClaudia von Bastian

Can the repetitive practice of cognitive tasks – as in ‘brain training’ programs – effectively enhance cognitive abilities such as reasoning? Even after more than 10 years of intensive research efforts, this question is still highly controversial, with prior studies and meta-analyses yielding inconsistent results. However, one robust and replicable finding is that trainees strongly improve in the tasks they practiced. In this project, the PhD student will investigate the mechanisms underlying those improvements during training and examine whether and how they can explain the presence or absence of gains in novel tasks. This project will involve acquiring advanced analytical and computational modelling skills. Reading: Melby-Lervåg, M., Redick, T. S., & Hulme, C. (2016). Working memory training does not improve performance on measures of intelligence or other measures of “far transfer”: Evidence from a meta-analytic review. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 11(4), 512–534. http://doi.org/10.3837/tiis.0000.00.000 von Bastian, C.C., & Oberauer, K. (2014). Effects and mechanisms of working memory training: A review. Psychological Research, 78(6), 803-820. doi: 10.1007/s00426-013-0524-6

Contact: Claudia von Bastian

Associative binding training – a novel avenue for enhancing cognitive abilities?

Primary supervisor: Claudia von Bastian

Recent studies and meta-analyses have questioned the effectiveness of cognitive (or ‘brain’) training in enhancing cognitive abilities such as reasoning (e.g., Simons et al., 2016). However, only few interventions targeted the specific cognitive mechanisms assumed to underlie both the practiced and the non-practiced tasks. This project therefore aims at investigating the plasticity of a mechanism that builds the foundation of both episodic and working memory, but is also critical to reasoning abilities: associative binding. In a past study, we indeed found that associative binding training yielded generalised performance improvements in older adults (Zimmermann et al., 2016), but other studies using similar approaches did not find such promising effects, neither in older (Bellander et al., 2017) nor in younger adults (De Simoni & von Bastian, under review). In this project, the PhD student will try to identify the possible reasons for these inconsistencies and further investigate the potential of associative binding training to improve cognitive abilities. As associative binding is particularly affected by cognitive aging (e.g., Old & Naveh-Benjamin, 2008), this project allows for (but does not necessarily require) working with individuals across the lifespan. Reading: Bellander, M., Eschen, A., Lövden, M., Martin, M., Bäckman, L., & Brehmer, Y. (2017). No evidence for improved associative memory performance following process-based associative memory training in older adults. Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, 8, 326. doi: 10.3389/fnagi.2016.00326 De Simoni, C., & von Bastian, C. C. (under review). No evidence for effects of updating and binding training on working memory capacity and efficiency. Manuscript available upon request. Old, S. R., & Naveh-Benjamin, M. (2008). Differential effects of age on item and associative measures of memory: A meta-analysis. Psychology and Aging, 23, 104–118. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0882-7974.23.1.104 Simons, D. J., Boot, W. R., Charness, N., Gathercole, S. E., Chabris, C. F., Hambrick, D. Z., & Stine-Morrow, E. A. L. (2016). Do “Brain-Training” programs work? Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 17(3), 103-186. doi: 10.1177/1529100616661983 Zimmermann, K., von Bastian, C. C., Martin, M., Roecke, C., & Eschen, A. (2016). Transfer effects after process-based object-location memory training in healthy older adults. Psychology and Aging, 31(7), 798–814. doi: 10.1037/pag0000123

Contact: Claudia von Bastian

Cognitive benefits of being bilingual

Primary supervisor: Claudia von Bastian

Does being a native speaker of two languages have not only linguistic and social, but also cognitive benefits? Many previous studies indeed reported better cognitive performance in bilinguals than monolinguals, and some studies even suggested that bilingualism is associated with a delayed onset of dementia (e.g., see Bialystok, 2017 for a review). However, more recent larger-scale studies (including one in our lab, see von Bastian, Souza, & Gade, 2016) could not replicate such positive effects of bilingualism. This project aims at understanding what other factors may have driven earlier findings of benefits such as effects of immigration, acculturation, and the specific second language spoken. As bilingualism has been argued to have particularly large effects on children’s and older adults’ cognition, this project allows for (but does not necessarily require) working with individuals across the lifespan. Reading: Bialystok, E. (2017). The bilingual adaptation: How minds accommodate experience. Psychological Bulletin, 143(3), 233-262. doi: 10.1037/bul0000099 von Bastian, C. C., Souza, A. S., & Gade, M. (2016). No evidence for bilingual cognitive advantages: A test of four hypotheses. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 145(2), 246-258. doi: 10.1037/xge0000120

Contact: Claudia von Bastian

Computational neuroscience and robotics

Find out more about our computational neuroscience and robotics research

Augmenting the senses with remote touch

Primary supervisor: Professor Tony Prescott

Co-supervisor/s: Dr Tom Stafford

Project description: In order to move around in the world safely and quickly most of us are highly reliant on our visual sense. When vision is compromised, either through disability, or through circumstance (for instance a fire-fighter in a smoke-filled room), the problem of safely finding our way becomes much more difficult. This project will look at the possibility of augmenting our existing senses with a form of ‘remote touch’ generated by using artificial distance sensors to stimulate tactile displays attached to the skin. The idea is that users may be able to actively control such devices in order to gain useful information about objects and surfaces in the world that can guide movement. The development of augmented sense technologies could lead to aids for the visually-impaired or enhanced mobility systems for the emergency services.

Visit www.sheffield.ac.uk/psychology/research/groups/atlas for details of ongoing research in the Active Touch Laboratory.

Contact: Professor Tony Prescott

Self-organisation as a theory of brain development

Primary supervisor: Dr Stuart Wilson

Project description: Self-organisation is a general theory of how function is assigned to cortical microcircuits. The theory predicts that a balance between cooperative and competitive interactions in local cortical circuits, consolidated by Hebbian learning, results in similar inputs being represented by nearby neurons. Simulations of cortical self-organisation have mainly concerned vision, where 'similar inputs' may translate to 'pixels at similar retinal locations' or 'edges of similar orientation'. My previous work has extended the approach for touch, showing that 'similar inputs' can, for example, translate to 'body parts often touching'. In principle, self-organising models can generate predictions about the functional organisation assigned to any cortical area. In practice, the validity of these models is limited by the accuracy with which model inputs reflect natural developmental experiences. Particularly for 'higher-order' cortical areas that combine information from multiple sources, i.e., multisensory or sensorimotor areas, natural interactions between these sources are difficult to synthesize. The project aims to address this bottleneck, by exploiting natural human and animal behaviours to generate inputs for models of map formation. This should help improve our understanding of the developmental mechanisms that underlie disorders of multisensory and sensorimotor integration.

Contact: Dr Stuart Wilson

The synthetic littermate project

Primary supervisor: Dr Stuart Wilson

Co-supervisor/s: Professor Tony Prescott

Project description: How do natural experiences shape the functional organisation of the developing brain? To address this question directly, we have been developing a novel robotic technology - the synthetic littermate (or 'surrogate'). The current prototype consists of a biomimetic skin, which encloses camera, microphone, gyroscope, and accelerometer sensors. This allows us to collect naturalistic, multisensory experiences from within a litter of real developing rat pups. Rat pups spend the first two postnatal weeks in large huddles, wriggling closely in a synergy that aids thermoregulation: This primitive, natural 'huddling' behaviour presents a rich and continuous source of sensory input to the developing pups, and so provides a unique opportunity to study self-organisation at the interface between natural and artificial systems. Driven by the rich multisensory experiences of a surrogate, self-organising models can be used to derive important predictions about the functional organisation in multisensory cortical areas, about which modern neuroscience knows relatively little. The approach could be used to predict, for example, the receptive field structure of multisensory neurons that represent combinations of somatosensory, visual, and proprioceptive spaces that interact to provide an agent with a sense of where it is in space (body schema).

Contact: Dr Stuart Wilson

The virtual body schema project

Primary supervisor: Dr Stuart Wilson

Co-supervisor/s: Dr Tom Stafford

Project description: The body schema can be loosely defined as the representation of the body in space, i.e., how you know you can reach the pint at the bar but not the bottle behind it; that you can fit through the door but not the cat-flap; that you must dive to kick a ball or duck to avoid a punch. Constructed from proprioceptive, somatosensory, visual, and auditory information, the body schema is like a bubble around the body, which includes bodily extensions such as clothes worn and tools wielded. When it goes awry, patients report a fascinating range of symptoms, for example amputees can experience pain originating in phantom hands. Given the importance of body schema to our everyday experience of the world, it is surprising just how little agreement there is between researchers (from philosophers, to neuroscientists, to roboticists) about the fundamentals: Namely, i) how can body schema be objectively defined, ii) how can body schema be objectively measured? The virtual body schema project aims to address these two challenges. Firstly, by constructing a psychological theory of body schema; through a series of experiments designed to explore the body schema as a representation in a space that is e.g., relative and/or absolute, topological and/or metric, innate and/or learnt? Secondly, by constructing a visualisation and virtual representation of a participant's body schema, based on objective psychophysical measurements that may be rendered in realtime to a virtual avatar. An important aim will be to derive a set of principles for the design of body schema for better and safer artificial agents and robots.

Contact: Dr Stuart Wilson

Efficient coding in touch

Primary supervisor: Dr Hannes Saal

Co-supervisor/s: Dr Stuart Wilson

Project description: Efficient coding models can successfully explain the emergence of different features detectors along the visual pathway, such as center-surround receptive fields, simple and complex cells, and even higher-level visual neurons. However, whether this approach also works to explain the tuning of somatosensory neurons is currently unknown. Indeed, a unified understanding of somatosensory cortical neurons, similar to the simple/complex cell dichotomy in the visual system, does not exist at present, with only a vague understanding of what features these neurons are responsive too. This project will explore cortical feature tuning in the somatosensory system through the lens of efficient coding.
This PhD project is suitable for applicants with a background in computational neuroscience or robotics.

Contact: Dr Hannes Saal  or Dr Stuart Wilson

Computational modelling of the emergence of somatosensory cortical maps

Primary supervisor: Dr Hannes Saal

Co-supervisor/s: Dr Stuart Wilson

Project description: The aim of this project is to to build a computational model of the development of cortical somatotopy in humans, focusing specifically on the representation of the hand. While many models exist that attempt to explain retinotopy in visual cortex, the equivalent problem in touch faces an additional challenge: our body is a three-dimensional object, whose representation needs to be embedded on the two-dimensional surface of the cortex. Which principles guide this transformation is currently unknown. Furthermore, our sense of touch relies on multiple classes of receptors, which respond differently to tactile stimuli. The contribution of each of these receptors to cortical map formation is currently unknown.

This project will focus on three questions:

  1. What are the statistics of tactile input when manipulating objects and exploring the environment using our sense of touch? This part of the project will involve tracking finger movements, measuring contact events, and reconstructing peripheral neural responses using a large-scale spiking model of the nerve, while participants explore a variety of haptic stimuli.
  2. To what extent is the structure of cortical somatotopic maps determined by the statistics of tactile input? This part will explore computational models for the development of cortical maps, with the aim of learning realistic maps of the human hand from the tactile data collected in part 1.
  3. Finally, touch is an active sense, and how we choose to interact with objects and our environment determines the tactile feedback we receive. How does this relationship determine the development of cortical representations? This final part of the project will explore the effect that different movement patterns have on the resulting cortical representations.

This PhD project is suitable for applicants with a background in computational neuroscience and modelling and/or an interest in psychophysics.

Contact: Dr Hannes Saal  or Dr Stuart Wilson


Developmental psychology

Find out more about our developmental psychology research

The development of early executive functions

Primary supervisor: Dr Emma Blakey

Project description: Executive functions are the set of high-level goal-directed thinking skills that develop rapidly during early childhood. While a lot is known about executive function development between the ages of 3 and 5, we know much less about how executive functions develop over the toddler years, known as the 'dark ages' of cognitive development. In some of our recent work, we have found that important developments occur between the ages of 2 and 3 in children's ability to flexibly switch their behaviour. A project in this area would extend this work to look at a wider range of executive functions. Projects could examine how executive functions develop over time during this stage of development, how they predict more complex emerging cognitive skills and/or how they are influenced by socioeconomic factors.

Contact: Dr Emma Blakey

The cognitive building blocks of early maths skills

Primary supervisor: Dr Emma Blakey

Project description: Maths skills at school entry predict a child's academic success across a range of domains both concurrently and years later. Furthermore, there is an achievement gap between children from lower socioeconomic homes compared to children from higher socioeconomic homes. There is therefore an important need to identify what skills predict early maths so that interventions can be effectively targeted. A project in this area would examine the cognitive building blocks of early maths, how skills interact with socioeconomic factors and whether this changes with age.

Contact: Dr Emma Blakey

Children's recognition of advertising messages in new media

Primary supervisor: Dr Mark Blades

Project description: Advertising, especially advertising unhealthy foods to young children, is a matter of controversy. Nearly all the previous research into the effects of advertising on children has focused on traditional television advertising. We want to investigate children’s understanding of advertisements in new media (like the Internet) and new forms of advertising (like product placement in TV programmes), and the effects that advertising might have on children’s life styles. This research can be carried out in any country.

Contact: Dr Mark Blades

Young children's first understanding of economics

Primary supervisor: Dr Mark Blades

Project description: It is clear from the recent world economic crisis that not many people (including governments, economists and the general public) have much understanding of economic processes. Young children in particular, are rarely taught about economic matters and have little insight into the nature of money, banking, finance or economic exchange. We want to investigate how young children first become aware of such concepts, and whether it is possible to introduce children to economic ideas at an early age. This research could be carried out in any country.

Contact: Dr Mark Blades

Interviewing child eyewitnesses

Primary supervisor: Dr Mark Blades

Project description: In the last few years there have been major improvements in the way that police officers interview child witnesses and children who have been the victims of physical or sexual abuse. We want to investigate ways to further improve police interviews. This would include looking at the most appropriate interview style, and the most effective types of questions to use when dealing with young vulnerable children.

Contact: Dr Mark Blades

The development of well being and its links with psychopathology

Primary supervisor: Dr Richard Rowe

Co-supervisor/s: Dr Chris Stride

Project description: Nurturing psychological well being across development has become an important issue in educational policy. Debate continues over the extent to which well being is at the opposite end of a continuum of psychopathology or whether it is a separable construct. This project will use large-scale existing datasets to examine the longitudinal associations between well being and common forms of psychopathology such as anxiety, depression and conduct problems. This project would be particularly suited to someone wishing to develop skills in advanced quantitative methodologies.

References:

Patalay, P., & Fitzsimons, E. (2016). Correlates of Mental Illness and Wellbeing in Children: Are They the Same? Results From the UK Millennium Cohort Study. Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 55(9), 771-783.

Croft, S., Stride, C., Maughan, B., & Rowe, R. (2015). Validity of the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire in Preschool-Aged Children. Pediatrics, 135(5), E1210-E1219.

Contact: Dr Richard Rowe

The development of flexible cognition in children and adults

Primary supervisor: Dr Daniel Carroll

Project description: The ability to switch flexibly between different rules is a crucial skill that emerges gradually during the preschool and early school years, and underpins many more complex behaviours. In recent work, we have found that the same processes that lead young children to make errors on flexible switching tasks also cause adults to respond more slowly on comparable tasks, suggesting that the same processes are at work in both preschool children and adults. The PhD student will be involved in a project that studies the cognitive skills that underpin flexible cognition across development, and examines how these core cognitive skills emerge and interact. This project will involve working with children as young as two years of age, as well as with adults.

Contact: Dr Daniel Carroll

The discovery of communication in infancy

Primary supervisor: Dr Danielle Matthews

Project description: During the first two year of life infants become remarkably effective communicators. By the time they approach their first birthday they can typically point at objects to draw other people’s attention to them. By the second birthday they can typically combine words to convey complex ideas. The PhD student will be involved in a project that examines what factors promote this learning process.

Contact: Dr Danielle Matthews

Pragmatic development

Primary supervisor: Dr Danielle Matthews

Project description: Children's pragmatic language skills are important for social wellbeing. This PhD will explore the cognitive basis for individual differences in pragmatics

Contact: Dr Danielle Matthews

All aspects of food marketing to children and its effects on children's diet and obesity

Primary supervisor: Dr Mark Blades

Project description: Childhood obesity is a major problem in the West, and is a developing problem in other countries. Childhood obesity, and related health problems, has been linked to the extensive marketing of unhealthy food to children. Research in this area can consider a number of approaches to this topic. For example, does food advertising in new media (like the Internet) have more or less effect on children's health then traditional television advertising? At what age do children recognise and understand the marketing messages in food advertisements? Are children aware of marketing techniques like product placement, or viral messages? Does recognising a particular marketing approach lessen the effect of that marketing or not? When do children realise that food advertising is for the benefit of the manufacturer and not for the benefit of the consumer?

Contact: Dr Mark Blades

How negation informs action and/or label learning in infants and toddlers

Primary supervisor: Dr Elena Hoicka

Project description: A current focus in developmental psychology is how children know when to accept information (e.g., Pedagogy Theory; Generics; Trust in Testimony). However the flip side of this question has been ignored but is equally important – how do children know when not to learn. My own research has found that parents offer cues to help toddlers to ignore novel information when joking (Hoicka, Jutsum, & Gattis, 2008). In particular, they show their disbelief through language after making a joke (e.g, Ducks say moo), including using negation (Ducks don’t say moo), but also correcting children with by provided contradicting positive information (Ducks go quack). The purpose of this project is to determine how these different types of language affect children’s rejection of information.

Contact: Dr Elena Hoicka

Toddlers’ and preschoolers’ understanding of complex intentions

Primary supervisor: Dr Elena Hoicka

Project description: A large body of research has found that infants understand that others can act intentionally from 12 months. However young children’s understanding of intentions does not stop developing at this point. For instance, toddlers do not understand complex intentions, such as intending to do the wrong thing, until 2 years (e.g., joking). Furthermore, intentions involve much more complexity than simply whether or not someone is acting intentionally. Importantly, intentions explain why someone would act in the way they do. For instance one could intend to run because they are trying to get fit, or because they are trying to catch a bus. Yet this aspect of intentionality has been little explored in developmental research. The aim of this project is thus to determine whether toddlers and pre-schoolers are aware of specific intentions.

Contact: Dr Elena Hoicka

Links between social learning and creativity in toddlers

Primary supervisor: Dr Elena Hoicka

Project description: Theoretical models have considered that both social transmission and innovation are important for cultural evolution. Over the past two decades there has been ample work on social transmission, specifically imitation, in toddlers and young children. However there has been relatively little work on innovation. My lab has recently developed a new tool to measure innovation (specifically divergent thinking) in infants as young as 13 months (Hoicka, Bijvoet-van den Berg, Carberry, & Kerr, 2013). A question remains as to whether social learning and innovation are completely distinct behaviours, or whether they interact. The purpose of this project is to examine the relationship between social learning and innovation

Contact: Dr Elena Hoicka

Understanding cognition, behaviour and learning in rare genetic syndromes

Primary supervisor: Dr Megan Freeth

Project description: Rare genetic syndromes are often associated with a profile of strengths and difficulties that are different to those who are neurotypical. However, knowledge of the profile associated with different conditions is often patchy leaving parents, clinicians and educators unsure what to expect following a clinical diagnosis. This project will be developed in collaboration with our partners at the Child Growth Foundation who support families of those with conditions such as Sotos syndrome, Weaver syndrome, Tatton-Brown Rahman syndrome, Russell-Silver syndrome. the aim of the project will be to improve knowledge in strategic areas of interest and potentially to develop educational interventions to support learning.

References:

Lane, C., Milne, E., & Freeth, M. (2016).  Cognition and behaviour in Sotos Syndrome: A systematic review. Plos One, 11(2), e0149189

Lane, C., Milne, E., & Freeth, M. (2017). Characteristics of Autism Spectrum Disorder in Sotos Syndrome. Journal of autism and developmental disorders, 47(1), 135-143

Contact: Dr Megan Freeth


Forensic Psychology

Healthy adaptation in individuals with adverse childhood experiences

Primary supervisor: Dr Agata Debowska

Project description: Exposure to interpersonal violence and other adverse experiences in childhood (such as parent’s death, household dysfunction, family members with substance use disorders) has been associated with harmful internalising and externalising outcomes, including personality disorders, suicidal and self-harming behaviour, aggression, and violent offending. Although research to date has largely focused on negative consequences of victimisation, not all individuals with such experiences develop symptoms of psychopathology. Therefore, the purpose of this project is to build a better understanding of factors which result in increased resilience and/or positive consequences among people with a history of victimisation/trauma in childhood.

Contact: Dr Agata Debowska

Peer-on-peer sexualised bullying

Primary supervisor: Dr Agata Debowska

Project description: Childhood sexual bullying may lead to long-lasting mental and physical health consequences for both the victim and the perpetrator, especially when such acts are frequent and persistent. Although a uniform definition of sexual bullying is lacking, it is usually understood to incorporate any behaviour that denigrates someone through the use of sexualised language (either face-to-face or behind someone’s back), gestures, and/or physical violence. In extreme cases, such behaviour can result in sexual assault or rape. Research indicates that sexualised bullying is mostly perpetrated by boys against girls, but sexual bullying perpetrated by girls against both girls and boys is becoming more and more frequent. Despite the serious consequences and increasing incidence of peer-on-peer sexualised bullying, however, insight into children’s understanding and comprehensive assessment of such behaviour is missing. Thus, the purpose of this project is to (1) explore children’s understanding of what constitutes sexualised bullying, (2) develop a reliable assessment of peer-on-peer sexualised bullying inside and outside school, in social groups, and online, and (3) create a psychosocial profile of individuals at increased risk of sexualised bullying perpetration and victimisation to enable targeted prevention.

Contact: Dr Agata Debowska


Social, health and environmental psychology

Find out more about our social, health and environmental psychology research

Food perceptions, eating behaviour and individual differences

Primary supervisor: Dr Nicola Buckland

Project description: Perceptions about foods, for example, the extent to which a food is perceived as healthy, satiating or useful for weight management, can influence food intake.  However, little is understood about the determinants of food perceptions, the impact of perceptions on eating behaviour and how perceptions differ across individual differences. The current research will build on a recently established methodology to assess food perceptions to (i) explore the determinants of food perceptions; (ii) understand the relationship between food perceptions and eating behaviour and; (iii) examine the extent to which perceptions differ across individual differences, such as comparing dieters’ and non-dieters’ perceptions about foods.

Relevant papers:

Buckland NJ, James Stubbs R, Finlayson G. Towards a satiety map of common foods: Associations between perceived satiety value of 100 foods and their objective and subjective attributes. Physiology and Behavior. 2015; 152 ():340-346.

Buckland NJ, Dalton M, Stubbs RJ, Hetherington MM, Blundell JE, Finlayson G. Associations between nutritional properties of food and consumer perceptions related to weight management. Food Quality and Preference. 2015; 45 ():18-25.

Contact: Dr Nicola Buckland

Promoting healthy and sustainable diets

Primary supervisor: Dr Nicola Buckland

Project description: Diets rich in animal meat pose severe risks to the environment, global food security and health. As such there is an urgent need to identify strategies that shift diets to more sustainable and healthy food sources. This PhD project will explore perceptions towards sustainable diets, explore the perceived facilitators and barriers to reducing red meat consumption and will test a range of strategies to reduce red meat consumption with no or reduced meat alternative diets.

Contact: Dr Nicola Buckland
Strategies for weight loss maintenance

Primary supervisor: Dr Nicola Buckland

Project description:  In 2015, 58% of women and 68% of men in the UK were overweight or obese. In efforts to control body weight, two thirds of women report engaging in a recent weight loss attempt.  However, such attempts are largely unsuccessful with most individuals regaining any lost weight in the long term. This PhD project will explore and test strategies (for example, psychological, dietary) to improve weight loss maintenance and it will examine the psychological traits associated with successful weight loss maintenance.

Contact: Dr Nicola Buckland
'The Ostrich Problem': Motivated Inattention to Information Pertaining to Goal Progress

Primary supervisor: Dr Thomas Webb

Project description: One of the most significant challenges facing science and society is how to promote lasting changes in people’s behaviour. What kinds of interventions influence the behaviours that lead to obesity or persuade people to use less energy in their homes? The proposed project will work alongside a team funded by the European Research Council (ERC) to investigate the possibility that people struggle to change because they intentionally fail to monitor the relation between their current behaviour and their desired behaviour. For example, few people monitor their household energy consumption, check their bank balances, keep track of what they are eating and so on.

This active ignoring of information about one’s current standing relative to one’s goals – termed here ‘the ostrich problem’ – is part of popular culture, yet current scientific perspectives assume that people will actively monitor and seek information on their progress. As a consequence, theoretical frameworks fail to adequately describe and predict the outcomes of behaviour change efforts and current interventions fall short of promise. The proposed research will investigate the nature and implications of the ostrich problem, seeking to explain why the ostrich problem exists and testing avenues for intervention.

You can find a description of the project at www.sheffield.ac.uk/psychology/research/groups/theostrichproblem

Contact: Dr Thomas Webb

Can we direct our imagination towards helpful ends?

Primary supervisor: Professor Peter Totterdell

Project description: Recent research has indicated that people spend a considerable amount of time engaged in imaginative activity, such as daydreaming, and that at least some of that activity is useful for social functioning and well-being. This imaginative activity can involve mental simulation that is volitional as well as reactive. The question therefore arises as to whether people can be helped to direct their imagination so that it fulfils useful functions –such as enhancing empathy, social interaction, and sense of purpose– and how that can best be achieved. This doctorate will therefore draw on complementary lines of research concerning daydreaming, imagined contact, anticipated emotion and the brain’s default mode network to investigate this topic. The research is likely to use a combination of quantitative methods, including lab-based experiments and experience sampling.

Relevant paper:

  • Waytz, A., Hershfield, H. E., & Tamir, D. I. (2015). Mental simulation and meaning in life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 108, 336-355.

Contact: Professor Peter Totterdell

Attachment style and relation to health and coping in adults

Primary supervisor: Dr Jilly Martin

Co-supervisor/s: Dr Abi Millings

Project description: Different attachment styles are known to be associated with differences in cognition, affect, and behaviour with regard to close relationships in adults. These individual differences are also known to affect how people deal with threatening situations. People with insecure attachment styles tend to have poorer coping abilities. In relation to health and illness, research has found links between attachment styles and the way in which people cope with illnesses such as HIV/AIDS (Gore-Felton, 2013), diabetes (Ciechanowski et al., 2001; 2004), arthritis (Sirois & Gick, 2014), and irritable bowel disease (Gick & Sirois, 2010). Research has also found that attachment styles can affect adherence to treatment (Bennet, Fuertes, Keitel & Philips, 2011; Ciechanowski et al., 2004).

While attachment styles are relatively resistant to change in the longer term, experimental research has shown that positive short term effects can be achieved on various outcome measures by priming attachment security. For example, priming attachment security can increase positive relationship expectations (Rowe & Carnelley, 2003), increase pain tolerance (Rowe et al., 2012) reduce attachment anxiety (Carnelley & Rowe, 2007), and reduce anxious and depressed mood (Carnelley et al., 2015). In this project, we would like to explore whether priming attachment security could improve coping with a chronic illness.

Key references:

  • Carnelley, Ottway, Rowe (2015) The Effects of Attachment Priming on Depressed and Anxious Mood. Clinical Psychological Science, doi: 10.1177/2167702615594998
  • Ciechanowski PS, Katon WJ, Russo JE, Walker EA. (2001) The patient-provider relationship: attachment theory and adherence to treatment in diabetes. American Journal of Psychiatry, 158, 29-35

Contact: Dr Jilly Martin  or Dr Abi Millings

Changing health, social and environmental behaviours with the Question-Behaviour Effect.

Primary supervisor: Dr Chantelle Wood

Project description: The Question-Behaviour Effect (QBE) is a simple intervention whereby asking questions about a future behaviour increases the likelihood of that behaviour being performed. For example, people asked to predict their recycling behaviour in a survey recycled more than those who did not predict their behaviour (Sprott, Spangenberg, & Perkins, 1999), and people asked about their intentions to eat healthily choose a healthier snacking option than those who were asked about unrelated intentions (Wood et al., 2014). This effect has been widely replicated (see Wood et al., 2016 for a meta-analysis). However, research examining factors that could optimise the effectiveness of the QBE in promoting behaviour change is lacking, and there is also scope for further research on the mechanisms that drive the QBE. The PhD project would focus on maximising the impact of the QBE on behaviour change by exploring moderators and mediators of the effect, targeting behaviours in domains that interest the PhD candidate (e.g. health behaviours, social behaviours including intergroup behaviours and discrimination, environmental behaviours)

Relevant papers:

Wood, C., Conner, M., Sandberg, T., Godin, G., & Sheeran, P. (2014). Why does asking questions change health behaviours? The mediating role of attitude accessibility. Psychology and Health, 29, 390-404. https://doi.org/10.1080/08870446.2013.858343.

Wood, C., Conner, M. T., Miles, E., Sandberg, T. M., Taylor, N. Godin, G., & Sheeran, P. (2016). The impact of asking intention or self-prediction questions on subsequent behavior: A meta-analysis. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 20(3), 245-268. https://doi.org/10.1177/1088868315592334.

Contact: Dr Chantelle Wood

Reducing prejudice and discrimination and promoting inclusion

Primary supervisor: Dr Chantelle Wood

Co-supervisor: Dr Aarti Iyer

Project description: Finding effective ways to change attitudes and behaviour is an important focus of social psychology. Prejudice and discrimination against individuals based on their race, sexuality, gender etc., remains a large issue in the UK, and so it is important that we examine ways in which we can reduce prejudice, and bolster positive intergroup relations and behaviour. This PhD project could explore ways in which to increase the effectiveness of existing prejudice-reduction techniques (e.g. imagined contact) or behaviour change interventions (including those from other fields such as health behaviour change) or involve designing and testing new interventions to improve intergroup relations.

Relevant papers:

Crisp, R. J., & Turner, R. N. (2009). Can imagined interactions produce positive perceptions?: Reducing prejudice through simulated social contact. American Psychologist, 64(4), 231-240

Miles, E., & Crisp, R. J. (2014). A meta-analytic test of the imagined contact hypothesis. Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, 17(1), 3-26.

Contact: Dr Chantelle Wood

What are the psychological benefits of engaging with another person’s imagination?

Primary supervisor: Professor Peter Totterdell

Project description: People frequently and intentionally choose to engage with the fruits of other people’s imagination. These encounters often occur through different forms of art, such as literature, visual art, drama, video games, and music. Clearly these encounters provide pleasure but do they also provide other universal psychological benefits, such as meaning, hope, and support for our better selves? Recent research (Kidd & Castano, 2013), for example, has indicated that reading literary fiction can enhance a person’s understanding of others. This doctorate will involve conducting a series of quantitative studies to evaluate such ideas.

Relevant paper:

  • Kidd, D. C., & Castano, E. (2013). Reading literary fiction improves theory of mind. Science, 342, 377-380.

Contact: Professor Peter Totterdell

Habit and health behaviour

Primary supervisor: Prof Paul Norman

Project description: Past behaviour is typically found to be the strongest predictor of future behaviour. When this occurs it is usually taken to reflect the operation of habits – i.e., learned sequences of acts that have become automatic responses to specific cues. The PhD student will examine the impact of habit strength on a range of health-related behaviours (e.g., exercise, alcohol consumption), with a particular focus on the key contextual cues that trigger health-promoting and health-compromising behaviour. The student will also examine the extent to which habit strength moderates the effectiveness of interventions (e.g., self-efficacy enhancement, implementation intentions) to change health-related behaviour.

Contact: Prof Paul Norman

Planning and health behaviour

Primary supervisor: Prof Paul Norman

Project description: Intention is the most proximal determinant of future behaviour in many models of health behaviour. However, there is a less-than-perfect relationship between people’s intention and their behaviour – the “intention-behaviour gap”. This project will examine the extent to which planning moderates intention-behaviour relations for various health-related behaviours (e.g., exercise, fruit and vegetable intake). Additional studies will examine the role of experimental measures of individual differences in planning ability (e.g., Tower of Hanoi) and working memory capacity with the aim of developing online planning measures that can used in conjunction self-report measures of intentions and behaviour.

Contact: Prof Paul Norman

Understanding beneficiary responses to affirmative action

Primary supervisor: Dr Aarti Iyer

Project description: Organisations seek to increase the representation of disadvantaged groups (e.g., women, ethnic minority groups) by implementing affirmative action programs, which include policies and procedures to help reduce bias and provide additional opportunities for target groups. The presence of such programs can elicit a stereotype of beneficiary incompetence, such that people believe that beneficiary groups cannot succeed on their own merit. However, little is known about how members of beneficiary groups themselves might negotiate such stereotypes: when will they be undermined by an affirmative action program (e.g., feeling anxious or insulted by the implication that they need help) and when will they be bolstered by it (e.g., appreciating the help being offered)?

This project will investigate a range of factors (e.g., individual differences, group processes, organisational characteristics) that shape beneficiary responses to affirmative action programs. It will also consider the implications of these responses for beneficiaries’ career aspirations and broader workplace attitudes (e.g., job satisfaction).

Contact: Dr Aarti Iyer

Solidarity in social movements: Antecedents and consequences of high-status groups’ participation in social justice efforts

Primary supervisor: Dr Aarti Iyer

Project description: Social movements typically seek to achieve justice or equality for a low-status group (e.g., women or ethnic minorities). Participation in such movements is rarely limited to members of the low-status group. Rather, members of high-status groups (e.g., men or White people) may act in solidarity with the movement to help achieve its goals. This project explores the antecedents of such political participation: when and why will high-status groups choose to join such social justice efforts? The project also examines the consequences of such solidarity, with respect to perceptions of the high-status group participants (e.g., as legitimate protesters or imposters), potential problems created for the social movement (e.g., marginalization of low-status group members), and the overall effectiveness of the social movement.

Contact: Dr Aarti Iyer

Integrating insights from neuroscience research into the development of interventions to change health behaviour

Primary supervisor: Dr Jilly Martin

Co-supervisor/s: Dr Chris Martin

Project description: Health psychology draws on psychological theory and research to develop interventions that seek to improve the health of individuals and society. Research in neuroscience increasingly addresses the biological underpinnings of the cognitive and social-psychological processes that drive much of our behaviour. Is it possible to make stronger links between these two fields of research in order to guide the development of more effective intervention strategies, targeted at specific groups and delivered via particular modes?

For example, the brain activation correlates of engaging in risk-seeking behaviours, decision making processes, or social reasoning have been investigated using brain imaging techniques such as fMRI. Other studies have revealed brain areas that may be important for goal setting or response inhibition. There are also basic neuobiological constraints that may impact upon social cognitive processes. These processes are exactly the target of behaviour change interventions. This research will investigate exciting questions about whether insights from neuroscience research can be used (and how) to guide the development of more effective behavioural interventions.

Part one of this project will be a systematic literature review exploring the extent to which neurobiological data and theory currently informs practice in health psychology and intervention design. Part two will involve an assessment of how the two fields can usefully and appropriately be integrated in relation to specific behavioural domains. Part three will develop and test a new theoretical model for intervention development that explicitly integrates neurobiological insights.

Contact: Dr Jilly Martin or Dr Chris Martin

Individual Differences in the Generation of Functional and Dysfunctional Counterfactual Thoughts

Primary supervisor: Dr Fuschia Sirois

Project description: Counterfactual thoughts are mental simulations of alternative outcomes that are commonly generated when events or situations turn out differently than expected. Upward counterfactual thoughts (thoughts about how a negative situation could have been better) can often have a behaviour regulating function by highlighting ways to correct future behaviour. Downward counterfactual thoughts (thoughts about how the outcome could have been worse) contrast the negative outcome with a much worse outcome and in this way provide a sense of relief which can help reduce negative mood about an outcome. Upward and downward counterfactuals can be functional or dysfunctional depending on the context.
Research on the role of individual differences in counterfactual thinking, and specifically how and when counterfactuals are used in a functional and adaptive manner, is limited. This PhD project will examine how positive and negative individual differences influence the generation of functional and dysfunctional counterfactuals, and the nature of the processes and outcomes involved.

Suggested readings:

  • Epstude, K., & Roese, N. J. (2008). The functional theory of counterfactual thinking. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 12(2), 168.
  • Sirois, F. M., Monforton, J., & Simpson, M. (2010). “If only I had done better”: Perfectionism and the functionality of counterfactual thinking. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 36, 1675-1692.

Contact: Dr Fuschia Sirois

Applying social psychology techniques to assistive technology

Primary supervisor: Dr Abi Millings

Co-supervisor/s: Dr Chantelle Wood

Project description: Assistive technologies are any technologies that serve to enable independence, rehabilitation, or treatment of particular symptoms or difficulties (related to both physical and mental health). Getting people to engage with, and adhere to using these technologies can be a problem, despite their utility. This PhD would explore how techniques from social psychology (for example, priming, the question-behaviour effect, implementation intentions, and self-affirmation) might be used to produce better engagement and adherence with assistive technologies.

Contact: Dr Abi Millings

The role of attachment issues in coping with a long-term skin condition

Primary supervisor: Dr Andrew Thompson

Co-supervisor/s: Dr Abi Millings

Project description: Skin condition can be associated with significant levels of distress and stress can play a role in the course of a number of conditions. Attachment theory argues that our experience of care influences affect regulation. Several studies have found that attachment orientation is associated with coping with various health conditions. Priming attachment security has been reported to have positive effects on psychological outcomes. This PhD would investigate the potential benefits of attachment priming in skin condition.

Contact: Dr Andrew Thompson

Trying to be perfect in an imperfect world: The role of perfectionism in adjustment to skin conditions

Primary supervisor: Dr Fuschia Sirois

Co-supervisor/s: Dr Andrew Thompson

Project description: Perfectionism is a well-established vulnerability factor in mental health. However, the role played by this multidimensional personality construct in physical illness is less well understood. The stress and coping cyclical amplification model of perfectionism in illness (SCCAMPI) has recently been put forward as a framework for understanding the role of perfectionism in disease progression and adjustment. The model suggests that illnesses such as skin conditions, where stress is known to be implicated in disease intensity and progression, are likely to be particularly influenced by perfectionism via its indirect impact on coping and social support. This PhD will investigate the role of perfectionism in adjustment to skin conditions. The final part of the project will examine the use of an intervention aimed at reducing the effects of perfectionism in people with skin conditions.

Suggested readings:

  • Molnar, D. S., & Sirois, F. M. (2015).Trying to be perfect in an imperfect world: Examining perfectionism in the context of chronic illness. In F. M. Sirois & D. S. Molnar (Eds.), Perfectionism, Health and Well-being (pp. 69-100). Switzerland: Springer.
  • Sirois, F. M., & Molnar, D. S. (2014). Perfectionism and maladaptive coping styles in patients with chronic fatigue syndrome, irritable bowel syndrome and fibromyalgia/arthritis and in healthy controls. Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics, 83(6), 384-385.

Contact: Dr Fuschia Sirois or Dr Andrew Thompson

Self-compassion, health, and adjustment to long-term health conditions

Primary supervisor: Dr Fuschia Sirois

Co-supervisor/s: Dr Georgina Rowse

Project description: Current theory indicates that the self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness components of self-compassion can foster adaptive responses to the perceived setbacks and shortcomings that people experience in the context of living with a chronic illness. A growing evidence base also indicates that self-compassion is associated with more frequent practice of health-promoting behaviours in healthy populations. Yet research on self-compassion in relation to health has been examined primarily within non-medical populations.

This PhD project will aim to increase understanding of the health benefits of self-compassion in the context of chronic illness and other long-term health conditions by examining the processes linking dispositional and induced self-compassion to coping, the practice of health-promoting behaviours, and responses to physical symptoms.

Suggested readings:

  • Pinto-Gouveia, J., Duarte, C., Matos, M., & Fráguas, S. (2014). The Protective Role of Self-compassion in Relation to Psychopathology Symptoms and Quality of Life in Chronic Illness and in Cancer Patients. Clinical Psychology & Psychotherapy, 21(4), 311-323. doi:10.1002/cpp.1838
  • Sirois, F. M., & Rowse, G. (2016). The role of self-compassion in chronic illness care. Journal of Clinical Outcomes Management, 23, 521-527. http://www.turner-white.com/pdf/jcom_nov16_compassion.pdf
  • Sirois, F. M., Molnar, D. S., & Hirsch, J. K. (2015). Self-compassion, stress, and coping in the context of chronic illness. Self and Identity, 1-14. doi:10.1080/15298868.2014.996249

Contact: Dr Fuschia Sirois  or Dr Georgina Rowse

Understanding and Addressing the Temporal Mood-Regulation Dynamics of Procrastination: Cognitive and neurobiological mechanisms

Primary supervisor: Dr Fuschia Sirois

Co-supervisor/s: Dr Liat Levita

Project description: Recent theory and accumulating evidence portrays procrastination as reflecting an irrational intertemporal choice to avoid aversive tasks that is motivated by poor emotional regulation of stress and negative states, and a disconnection from future self. Cognitive shifts towards immediate rather than distal concerns as a result of neural-physiological activation that occurs when people are feeling stressed or anxious about a task are posited to contribute to procrastination and an ongoing pattern of avoidant coping.

This PhD project aims to advance knowledge about the temporal mood-regulation dynamics involved in procrastination by investigating the neurobiological mechanisms underlying processes of emotion mis-regulation in the avoidance of intended tasks. The involvement of positive and negative emotions in the promotion and prevention of procrastination will be examined using EEG, and psychophysiological measures of emotional reactivity, e.g., electrodermal response (EDA), heart rate, and facial EMG. The project will also examine the potential effects of developing a more compassionate and empathetic view of the present and future selves for reducing procrastination across important life domains.

Suggested readings:

  • Sirois, F. M., & Pychyl. T. A. (2013). Procrastination and the priority of short-term mood regulation: Consequences for future self. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 7 (2), 115–127.
  • Sirois, F. M. (2014). Procrastination and stress: Exploring the role of self-compassion. Self and Identity, 13 (2), 128-145.
  • Sirois, F. M. (2014). Out of sight, out of time? A meta-analytic investigation of procrastination and time perspective. European Journal of Personality, 28, 511–520 (IF = 3.99).

Contact: Dr Fuschia Sirois or Dr Liat Levita

The role of sex hormones and brain activity in risk-taking and antisocial behaviour in adolescence

Primary supervisor: Dr Richard Rowe

Co-supervisor/s: Dr Liat Levita

Project description: While there are a number of reasons to hypothesise that circulating testosterone performs an important role in many risky behaviours, the findings of empirical studies remain unclear. It is likely that testosterone levels interact with other factors in the environment and may be the consequence of behaviour as well as a cause. In this project students might measure levels of circulating testosterone in saliva and examine their function in contexts such as antisocial behaviour (aggression, delinquency), risky driving behaviour, or in sports performance. This work will happen in parallel to investigating the neural mechanisms, using EEG, that may mediate circulating testosterone effects on cognition and behaviour.

Initial reading:

  • Rowe, R., Maughan, B., Worthman, C. M., Costello, E. J., & Angold, A. (2004). Testosterone, antisocial behavior, and social dominance in boys: Pubertal development and biosocial interaction. Biological Psychiatry, 55(5), 546-552. doi: 10.1016/j.biopsych.2003.10.010
  • Duke, S. A., Balzer, B. W. R., & Steinbeck, K. S. (2014). Testosterone and Its Effects on Human Male Adolescent Mood and Behavior: A Systematic Review. Journal of Adolescent Health, 55(3), 315-322. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jadohealth.2014.05.007
  • Peper, J. S., Koolschijn, P. C., & Crone, E. A. (2013). Development of risk taking: contributions from adolescent testosterone and the orbito-frontal cortex. J Cogn Neurosci, 25(12), 2141-2150.

Contact: Dr Richard Rowe or Dr Liat Levita

Attitudes toward robots

Primary supervisor: Dr Thomas Webb

Co-supervisor/s: Professor Tony Prescott

Project description: Rapid advancements in technology mean that it is now possible to develop safe and human-friendly robots to assist people in their day-to-day lives. However, a recent survey by Sciencewise (2013) suggests that 61% of people believed that robots should not be allowed to care for children, elderly, and the disabled, believing instead that the primary areas for robotics should be the military and manufacturing. These views are, unfortunately, at odds with the difficulty of providing adequate care for the increasing number of elderly and disabled people. Indeed, by 2060, 30 per cent of the population of Europe will be 65 years of age or over compared to 17 per cent in 2010 (Eurostat, 2010).

The proposed project will deconstruct peoples’ attitudes toward robots by employing a mix of self-report and implicit measures of attitude (e.g., the Implicit Association Test, Greenwald et al., 1995) and by separating cognitive (thoughts) from affective (feelings) components of attitude (see, e.g., Crites et al., 1994). We will also examine how individual differences (e.g., age, gender, culture, familiarity with robots) and features of the robot in question (e.g., appearance, behaviour) influence respondents’ attitudes. Finally, the proposed project will examine the effect of imagined contact (Crisp & Turner, 2009) on attitudes towards robots.

Further reading:

  • Prescott, T. J., et al. (2012, May). Robot Companions For Citizens: Roadmapping the potential for future robots in empowering older people. In: Bridging Research in Ageing and ICT Development Conference, Prague, Czech Republic.
  • Crisp, R. J., & Turner, R. N. (2009). Can imagined interactions produce positive perceptions?: Reducing prejudice through simulated social contact. American Psychologist, 64, 231-240.

Contact: Dr Thomas Webb


Systems neuroscience

Find out more about our systems neuroscience research

The neurophysiological basis of spontaneous fluctuations in neuroimaging signals

Primary supervisor: Dr Myles Jones

Co-supervisor/s: Dr Jason Berwick

Project description: A technique called blood oxygen level dependent (BOLD) functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) can determine levels of different activity in parts of the living human brain and how malfunctions can occur in disease. Furthermore, this technique has been extended to look at communication between brain regions based on the similarity between ongoing signals (‘brain waves’) in connected parts of the brain. However, these magnetic techniques are based on changes in the oxygen content of the blood rather than direct measures of brain activity. They are used because changes in oxygen content can be observed without performing surgery on the brain in human subjects. There is concern, however, because the manifestation of these ongoing brain waves in blood oxygen content is poorly understood and as such the validity of using them to infer communication between brain structures has been questioned. By directly measuring spontaneous brain activity, neuroimaging signals and blood oxygen content at the same time the proposed research hopes to understand the relationships between them and allow this potentially important aspect of neuroimaging to further our understanding of brain function.

Contact: Dr Myles Jones  or Dr Jason Berwick

Simultaneous measures of brain and blood oxygenation: Revealing the function behind 'functional' brain mapping signals

Primary supervisor: Dr Myles Jones

Co-supervisor/s: Dr Jason Berwick

Project description: A technique called blood oxygen level dependent (BOLD) functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) can determine levels of different activity in parts of the living human brain and how malfunctions can occur in disease. However, currently the changes in task related brain tissue oxygenation changes that directly influence blood oxygenation signals are not well characterised and as such, the time course and spatial extent of the fMRI signal is difficult to interpret in terms of the underlying neurometabolic changes and brain activity. The classic technique of polarographic electrode recording of extra cellular tissue oxygen concentration has become in vogue as it is well suited to address this issue. However, no studies have combined this technique with optical imaging spectroscopy measurements of blood oxygenation and as such, the direct relevance of polarographic electrode data to fMRI is uncertain. Thus the present proposal seeks to combine these techniques to further our understanding of the temporal, spatial and functional role of the task evoked changes in cerebral blood oxygenation and as such, directly aid the interpretation of fMRI data.

Contact: Dr Myles Jones  or Dr Jason Berwick

Mathematical Modelling of Neurovascular function

Primary supervisor: Dr Jason Berwick

Project description: Developing and refining brain tissue models to enable world leading research into neurovascular coupling in health and disease. We are seeking highly skilled and motivated mathematical and/or programming postgraduate students to join our neurovascular research team that is investigating how the brain regulates its blood supply in health but also in diseases such as Alzheimer’s. The main focus of this project will be using theoretical methods such as Monte Carlos simulations to generate physiologically plausible models of how light penetrates brain tissue particularly how it is scattered and absorbed. The project will also refine the use of optogenetics that can be used to drive cells of the neurovascular unit with light.

Contact: Dr Jason Berwick

The breakdown of neurovascular coupling in the diseased state specifically Epilepsy and Alzheimer’s disease.

Primary supervisor: Dr Jason Berwick

Project description: Epilepsy is the most common neurological condition in the UK, affecting 1 – 2 % of the population. Epilepsies often involve only a small area of the brain - the epileptic focus – and the abnormal activity can propagate out from there. Although surgery is often curative in epilepsy, effective intervention relies on the correct identification of the location of the epileptic focus. Current pre-operative techniques are of limited use in this regard, but the new generation of imaging techniques based on changes in blood perfusion of active areas offer great promise. However, we currently have very little understanding of how epilepsy affects the relationship between brain activity and perfusion. Our research will use state of the art techniques in an animal model of epilepsy to characterise, define and measure the relationship between activity and perfusion in the epileptic state. We will also assess whether any long term changes in this relationship persist after epileptic activity, and whether antiepileptic medication can return the relationship to normal. The research we propose will develop the use of imaging techniques as a tool for pre-surgical localization of epileptic foci in epilepsy and ultimately improve outcomes for surgical interventions on human epilepsy patients.

Research Groups Involved: Dr Jason Berwick, Dr Aneurin Kennerley, Professor Paul Overton, Dr Chuang Kai-Hsiang – Singapore Bioimaging consortium

Contact: Dr Jason Berwick

Assessing the hemodynamic signal sources of fMRI based spontaneous connectivity maps and how neuronal plasticity such as increased spatial working memory can change these networks

Primary supervisor: Dr Jason Berwick

Project description: Many psychiatric (e.g. schizophrenia) and neurological diseases are characterised by a disturbance of the connections between different parts of the brain that need to communicate with one another. A technique called blood oxygen level dependent (BOLD) functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) can determine levels of different activity in parts of the living human brain and how malfunctions can occur in disease. However, this technique has been extended to look at communication between brain regions based on the similarity between ongoing signals (‘brain waves’) in connected parts of the brain. Neuroimaging allows precise information to be gathered about the breakdown of this communication between structures in disease states. However, these magnetic techniques are based on changes in the oxygen content of the blood rather than direct measures of brain activity. They are used because changes in oxygen content can be observed with an MRI scanner without performing surgery on the brain. There is concern, however, because the manifestation of these ongoing brain waves in blood oxygen content is poorly understood and as such the validity of using them to infer communication between brain structures has been questioned. By directly measuring spontaneous brain activity, neuroimaging signals and blood oxygen content at the same time we hope to understand the relationships between them and allow this potentially important aspect of neuroimaging to further our understanding of brain function and its malfunction in disease states.

Research Groups Involved: Dr Myles Jones, Dr Jason Berwick, Dr Aneurin Kennerley, Dr Ying Zheng, Dr Chuang Kai-Hsiang – Singapore Bioimaging consortium

Contact: Dr Jason Berwick

Using pharmacological agents to investigate the mechanisms of the neuronal vascular coupling

Primary supervisor: Dr Jason Berwick

Project description: The changes in cerebral blood flow, volume and oxygenation that accompany increases in neural activity form the basis of non-invasive neuroimaging techniques such as blood oxygen level dependent (BOLD) functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) which allow human brain mapping. Understanding the relationship between cerebral hemodynamics and the underlying evoked neural activity is therefore vital for the interpretation of neuroimaging data. With a unique combination of optical, electrophysiological and MR techniques in a rodent model we have previously explored the quantitative relationships between increases in activity and the accompanying hemodynamics and positive fMRI signals. In this project we will investigate the chemical mediators and mechanisms of neurovascular coupling by using specific pharmacological blockers thought to play a role in the coupling process.

Research Groups Involved: Dr Jason Berwick, Dr Myles Jones, Dr Aneurin Kennerley, Dr Ying Zheng, Dr Chuang Kai-Hsiang – Singapore Bioimaging consortium

Contact: Dr Jason Berwick

Understanding neurovascular coupling and its importance in the interpretation of modern neuroimaging techniques

Primary supervisor: Dr Jason Berwick

Project description: During the past two decades, blood oxygenation level dependent (BOLD) functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) has become the scientific technique of choice for investigating human brain function in the field of cognitive neuroscience. It exploits the local alterations in blood flow produced by changes in neural activity, termed neurovascular coupling. However, BOLD fMRI does not measure neural activity directly and hence a fundamental problem exists: how to interpret BOLD signal changes and make inferences about the neural activity that generates them. This is far from straightforward because the mechanisms linking events that produce neural changes to BOLD signaling are highly complex. For example, increased BOLD activity in a vast range of tasks and experimental conditions is interpreted as indicating areas of increased neural activity. However, many neural circuits in the brain are inhibitory and little is known about what corresponding fMRI signals are generated. Would an inhibitory neural signal be expected to generated negative BOLD for example? Consequently, multi-modal experiments that directly compare different indicators of hemodynamic activity and electrophysiological measures of neural signals are necessary if BOLD contrast is to be correctly interpreted.

Contact: Dr Jason Berwick

Understanding the effects of brain disease on what functional brain imaging signals are telling us about neuronal activity

Primary supervisor: Dr Chris Martin

Project description: Functional brain imaging methods such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) have already revolutionized how we can study the processes and functioning of the healthy human brain and are making an increasing impact on our understanding on what goes wrong in disease of the brain. However, it is important to remember that the signals measured in techniques such as fMRI are not actually telling us about the activity of neurons, but are instead reflecting changes in brain blood flow. It is critical therefore that we understand in detail how the activity of neurons is related to these blood flow changes and our laboratory has played an important role in international research efforts in this area. An increasingly important issue to address now however is how do we interpret brain imaging signals in the context of brain disease? It turns out that many of the biological mechanisms that are responsible for the coupling of neuronal activity to blood flow and therefore brain imaging signals may also be altered by common diseases of the brain such as depression, Alzheimers disease and stroke to name but a few. In this situation it becomes difficult to interpret brain imaging signals in people with brain diseases as they might EITHER be telling us about the neuronal activity OR they might be telling us about the actions of the diseases on these coupling processes. Without more research on this topic, it is difficult to distinguish between these two possibilities and this will substantially impair our future ability to apply functional brain imaging to investigate human brain disease and dysfunction and develop new treatments. This PhD project will involve using a range of in vivo techniques including electrophysiology, optical imaging and fMRI (full training given) to investigate the effect of specific disease processes (including neuronal inflammation and neurovascular coupling breakdown) of how brain imaging signals relate to the activity of neurons.

Contact: Dr Chris Martin

The reward circuits of the striatum

Primary supervisor: Dr Enrico Bracci

Project description: The striatum is a brain area crucially involved in action selection and reward-mediated learning. Unravelling the neuronal circuits underlying these functions is essential to understand their operation and to find therapies for when things go wrong (for instance in drug addiction). State of the art electrophysiological techniques and photostimulation (optogenetics) will be used.

Contact: Dr Enrico Bracci

Investigating the consequences of presynaptic interactions for basal ganglia function

Primary supervisor: Dr Enrico Bracci

Co-supervisor/s: Professor Paul Overton

Project description: We have recently discovered that neurons in the striatum (a nucleus important for motor control and reward processing) interact not only through conventional synapses but also through modulation of “third party” inputs. This project will explore the functional consequences of these interactions using a combination of electrophysiological, pharmacological and computational techniques.

Contact: Dr Enrico Bracci  or Professor Paul Overton

Understanding the neural basis of ADHD

Primary Supervisor: Professor Paul Overton

Project description: Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is the most prevalent neurodevelopmental disorder, however the neural changes that underlie the disorder are poorly understood. Recent evidence suggests that a midbrain structure, the superior colliculus, has a central role. The project we envisage will use pre clinical in vivo electrophysiology and possibly behavioural analysis to explore role of the colliculus in ADHD, in particular the possibility that the structure may be a target for ADHD drug therapies.

Contact: Professor Paul Overton

Sensory regulation of dopaminergic neurons

Primary supervisor: Professor Paul Overton

Project description: The neurotransmitter dopamine is implicated in a wide range of brain processes and dysfunction of the dopamine systems leads to severe neurological and psychiatric problems. However, the precise function of the dopamine signal is still being hotly debated. Our approach to this problem has been to study the properties of the systems which supply information to the dopamine systems, in particular those which provide sensory information. Recent evidence suggests that dopamine systems receive visual information from the superior colliculus, a relatively primitive multimodal structure in the midbrain. This has important implications for the kind of information which the dopamine signal can carry, but we’re unsure how generalizable these implications are – i.e. whether the colliculus is also the source of other sensory inputs to the dopamine systems. That said, both the colliculus and dopamine systems both respond to auditory stimuli, and hence the visual circuitry may generalise to audition. This issue will be investigated using a combination of in vivo extracellular recording and tract tracing neuroanatomy. The eventual decoding of the dopamine signal will not only shed light on important aspects of brain function but will ultimately lead to the development of new treatments for dopamine-related disorders.

Contact: Professor Paul Overton

When do astrocytes contribute to the control of brain blood flow?

Primary supervisor: Dr Clare Howarth

Project description: In order that the brain can function normally, it is essential that blood flow within the brain is well matched to neuronal metabolic demand. When neurons are active they send a message to the local vasculature to increase blood flow (a phenomenon called neurovascular coupling) and so increase the supply of nutrients: glucose and oxygen. This increase in blood flow and blood volume is the basis of non-invasive functional imaging signals such as BOLD fMRI. Understanding how different cells are involved in neurovascular coupling is important not only for understanding what functional imaging signals can tell us about the brain but also for helping us to understand what goes wrong in diseases where neurovascular coupling is altered. We will investigate which cells are involved in controlling brain blood flow under various conditions (e.g. in response to increased neuronal activity, in response to a physiological stimulus). Of particular interest are astrocytes, a supporting cell within the brain. Although astrocytes have been shown to modify the diameter of cerebral arterioles, their role in the regulation of brain blood flow in response to neuronal activity remains controversial.

Contact: Dr Clare Howarth

Neurovascular coupling and ageing

Primary supervisor: Dr Clare Howarth

Co-supervisor/s: Dr Jason Berwick

Project description: Neurovascular coupling is the mechanism which links a change in neuronal activity to a local change in blood flow in the brain. This phenomenon ensures that active neurons receive the energy (in the form of glucose and oxygen) that they require to function normally. It is known that during aging brain blood flow responses (e.g. to an increase in CO2) are altered. We will combine measurements of blood flow, neuronal activity and intracellular calcium transients with pharmacological manipulations to investigate what underlies age-related changes in brain blood flow.

Contact: Dr Clare Howarth or Dr Jason Berwick