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PhD Studentship: To Swim or to Struggle: How Tadpole Motor Circuits Reconfigure Themselves in a Fraction of a Second.

University of Exeter - College of Engineering, Mathematics and Physical Sciences

Qualification Type: PhD
Location: Exeter
Funding for: UK Students, EU Students
Funding amount: £15,609 This studentship is open to UK and Irish nationals, who if successful in their application will receive a full studentship including payment of university tuition fees at the home fees rate.
Hours: Full Time
Placed On: 14th January 2022
Closes: 13th February 2022
Reference: 4317

Neuroscience experiments show that each motor behaviour can be characterised by a set of neurons producing a pattern of electrical activity. However, the transitions between patterns are poorly understood. The wiring diagram of a neural network defines its structure and shapes its functionality (behaviour) by producing the neuronal activity patterns. This structure-function relationship is not fixed and may change dynamically, enabling rapid change of activity patterns in response to different situations. 

The young frog tadpole is an ideal system to study dynamic network reconfiguration because the connectivity in its motor circuits is known. In the tadpole, such dynamic connection reconfiguration means life or death. The same motor circuits that produce swimming, to flee from predators, can also produce struggling if the tadpole is caught or stuck against an obstacle. Swimming involves a rapid rhythmic wave of muscle contractions propagating from head to tail. Struggling is a slower but more powerful rhythm that propagates from tail to head. It is critical that the tadpole quickly transitions from swimming to struggling if caught. 

This project will test the hypothesis that this dynamic network reconfiguration occurs automatically in the spinal cord motor circuits as sensory inputs change, without involving neuromodulation, changes in synaptic structure, or any feedback from the brain. It will generate predictions to be tested by our experimental collaborators. 

During this project, you will build mathematical and computational models of the tadpole brain and spinal cord that support swimming and struggling. This model will be based on anatomical and physiological experimental data and incorporate different types of neurons. Population level models will include a chain of interactive segments able to propagate forward and backward waves along the chain under control of sensory inputs. 

Detailed models of the brain and spinal neural circuits will include several neuronal cell types, each with their own pattern of projections to other neurons. You will build on a previously published model of the swimming network and include two newly discovered cell types. All neurons of detailed models will be modelled using the Hodgkin-Huxley formalism and include a unique combination of ion channels. You will investigate how different patterns of stimulation along the tadpole body produce different behaviours. You will use the models to determine how changes in sensory stimulation lead to dynamic changes in the activity of the different neuron types. You will examine the role of each cell type in the transition between swimming and struggling by altering their number and properties to understand how this affects the behaviour. Finally, you will determine how each type of neurons contributes to the transition between swimming and struggling, by conducting numerical simulations of models.

Fundamental neuronal mechanisms are highly conserved across vertebrate species. The results you will obtain using tadpole models will be applicable to more complex brain networks in mammals. Your findings will have implications beyond basic neuroscience research: they may be used to better design robots that need to navigate difficult environments without getting stuck. 

Funding Details

The University of Exeter’s College of Engineering, Mathematics and Physical Sciences is inviting applications for a fully-funded PhD studentship to commence in January 2022 or as soon as possible thereafter.  For eligible students the studentship will cover Home tuition fees plus an annual tax-free stipend of at least £15,609 for 3.5 years full-time, or pro rata for part-time study. 

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