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School of Biological and Behavioural Sciences

The role of A13 dopamine neurons in reaching and grasping behaviour

Research environment

The School of Biological and Behavioural 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.

The PhD work will involve training in research design, literature review, scientific writing as well as advanced training in systems neuroscience methodology.

Project description

Background: Recently we have been investigating in rodents the functional properties of a dopaminergic (DA) cell population (A13) located in the extended zona incerta region whose main function is unresolved. Dopamine’s importance in learning and memory stems from its role in signalling the reinforcing properties of salient stimuli and coordinating motor sequences evidenced by the severe deficits seen in Parkinson’s (PD) and Huntington’s Disease (HD) patients. Using temporary loss-of-function methodology and that to monitor neural activity in vivo we have recently demonstrated a role for A13 DA neurons in reaching/grasping behaviour that is independent of reward (in preparation).

Objectives: This PhD project aims to a) elucidate the functional connectivity of A13-DA neurons and their contribution to learned reaching/grasping motor tasks and b) to develop a novel rodent model for investigating reaching/grasping symptomology known to exit in DA neurodegenerative models.

General Approach: To do so we will utilise transgenic TH-cre rats to functionally label, manipulate and/or ablate A13-DA neurons for the purpose of identifying their functional connectivity within the reaching/grasping circuit. The initial plan (year 1) is to genetically ablate these neurons for determining how well-learned reaching/grasping tasks are impacted and potentially relearned following neuronal degeneration. In addition, this PhD work will investigate whether A13 neurodegeneration differentially impacts the ability of adolescent and aged rats in relearning (years 1-2) these behaviours through compensatory learning-related motor systems (years 2-3).

Significance: This works aims to advance our understanding of the role played by A13 DA neurons in fine motor control and procedural memories and to potentially shed light on the HD and PD deficits in grasping/writing and their recovery using a novel rodent A13-DA reaching/grasping model.


This studentship is open to Mexican students applying for CONACyT funding. CONACyT will provide a contribution towards your tuition fees each year and Queen Mary will waive the remaining fee. CONACyT will pay a stipend towards living costs to its scholars.

Eligibility and applying

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. 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.

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 CONACyT 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 CONACyT for the scholarship as per their requirements and deadlines, with the support of the project supervisor.

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

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  • 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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