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School of Biological and Behavioural Sciences

Prefrontal control of hypothalamic feeding-circuits: Cognitive control over feeding behaviour

Research environment

The School of Biological and Behavoiural Sciences at Queen Mary is one of the UK’s elite research centres, according to the 2014 Research Excellence Framework (REF). We offer a multi-disciplinary research environment and have approximately 150 PhD students working on projects in the biological and psychological sciences. Our students have access to a variety of research facilities supported by experienced staff, as well as a range of student support services.

The Apergis-Schoute lab investigates the neural circuits linking apetite with cognition and to do so implements in transgenic rodents state-of-the-art genetic tools for identifying the brain pathways that do so. These involve both advanced imaging and neuro-manipulation techniques.

Training and development

Our PhD students become part of Queen Mary’s Doctoral College which provides training and development opportunities, advice on funding, and financial support for research. Our students also have access to a Researcher Development Programme designed to help recognise and develop key skills and attributes needed to effectively manage research, and to prepare and plan for the next stages of their career.

Project description

Background: The prefrontal cortex (PFC) is a brain region critical for optimising behavioural outcomes by prioritising choices relevant to an animal’s well-being. Anatomically it sends projections to the hypothalamus - a phylogenetically older structure important for sensing and responding to interoceptive signals that relate to the energy requirements of an organism - revealing an anatomical substrate for top-down influences on bottom-up energy signalling. It is thought that reduced or excessive control over the drive to eat described in eating disorders results from under- or over-activation of PFC brain regions important in decision-making.

Objective: To investigate the executive control over eating this PhD research proposal aims to link the underlying circuitry between the PFC and energy-sensing circuits of the hypothalamus to the regulation of eating behaviour.

General Approach: In beginning to do so we have successfully modified a rodent anticipatory negative contrast (ANC) paradigm (Hayes et al., 2021) where, in anticipation of palatable food, rats learn to restrict consumption of a less rewarding food type resulting in a binge on the preferred food when it is made available. This allows for measuring control over the urge to eat and loss thereafter within the same session. For determining the underlying neural circuits in regulating food intake, the project will involve using genetic tools to monitor PFC and hypothalamic activity in vivo as well as manipulate circuits for regulating under- and over-eating.

Significance: This work will help advance our understanding of the underlying neural mechanisms supporting the cognitive control over feeding behaviour and potentially shed light on the circuits disrupted in eating disorders.


This studentship is open to students applying for China Scholarship Council funding. Queen Mary University of London has partnered with the China Scholarship Council (CSC) to offer a joint scholarship programme to enable Chinese students to study for a PhD programme at Queen Mary. Under the scheme, Queen Mary will provide scholarships to cover all tuition fees, whilst the CSC will provide living expenses for 4 years and one return flight ticket to successful applicants. 

Eligibility and applying

Applicants must:

  • Be Chinese students with a strong academic background.
  • Students must hold a PR Chinese passport.
  • Applicants can either be resident in China at the time of application or studying overseas. 
  • Students with prior experience of studying overseas (including in the UK) are eligible to apply. Chinese QMUL graduates/Masters’ students are therefore eligible for the scheme.

Please refer to the CSC website for full details on eligibility and conditions on the scholarship.

Applications are invited from outstanding candidates with or expecting to receive a first or upper-second class honours degree in an area relevant to the project - biology, psychology, computer science. A masters degree is desirable, but not essential. The candidate should have a exceptional background in biology and the appropriate statistical and programming skills necessary for doing research.

Applicants are required to provide evidence of their English language ability. Please see our English language requirements page for details.

The deadline for applications to Queen Mary is 30th January 2022. Applicants will need to complete an online application form by this date to be considered, including a CV, personal statement and qualifications. Shortlisted applicants will be invited for a formal interview by the project supervisor. Those who are successful in their application for our PhD programme will be issued with an offer letter which is conditional on securing a CSC scholarship (as well as any academic conditions still required to meet our entry requirements).

Once applicants have obtained their offer letter from Queen Mary they should then apply to CSC for the scholarship by the advertised deadline with the support of the project supervisor. For September 2022 entry, applicants must complete the CSC application on the CSC website between 10th March - 31st March 2022.

Only applicants who are successful in their application to CSC can be issued an unconditional offer and enrol on our PhD programme.

Apply Online


  1. Hayes, J., Garau, C., Chiacchierini, G., Urcelay, G.P., McCutcheon, J.E. and Apergis-Schoute, J., 2021. Predictive and motivational factors influencing anticipatory contrast: A comparison of contextual and gustatory predictors in food restricted and free-fed rats. Dec 1;242:113603. doi: 10.1016/j.physbeh.2021.113603
  2. Aitta-Aho, T., Hay, Y.A., Phillips, B.U., Saksida, L.M., Bussey, T.J., Paulsen, O. and Apergis-Schoute, J., 2018. Basal forebrain and brainstem cholinergic neurons differentially impact amygdala circuits and learning-related behavior. Current Biology, 28(16), pp.2557-2569.
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