Rhiannon Mackenzie-Phelan

School of Psychology

Title of your thesis: Silent cortex? Or are we just not listening correctly? Improving current neurosurgical intervention and clinical outcome in brain tumour and epilepsy patients.

Your supervisory team:
Director of Studies: Dr Daniel Roberts
Co-supervisor: Professor Francis McGlone
External Supervisor: Dr Michael Jenkinson (Consultant neurosurgeon at Walton Centre for Neurology and Neurosurgery)
Details of funding/collaborators if any (e.g. industry partners):
3-year fully funded LJMU Pro-Vice Chancellor studentship with an additional training award from the Doctoral Training Alliance (DTA) for Applied Biosciences & Health.
A brief summary of your PhD background, aims and any results so far (max 400 words):
This year 260,000 people will be diagnosed with brain cancer – the leading cause of death in cancer patients under the age of 40 and the biggest killer of children. A 2016 Parliamentary report highlighted that patients are failed at every stage - from diagnosis and treatment to research funding, with survivors experiencing distressing cognitive impairments. The report has resulted in a major UK priority to address the barriers to brain tumour research. The Walton Centre for Neurology and Neurosurgery houses a sophisticated intraoperative suite for awake craniotomy– the gold-standard surgical intervention for the removal of brain tumours. This procedure involves electrically stimulating the exposed brain to temporally supress key functional areas. If language dysfunction occurs (e.g., speech loss) it can be assumed that the particular brain area is involved in language functions and will be avoided during resection, if no deficit occurs the area will be deemed “silent cortex”. A critical issue is delineating the extent of tissue that can be safely resected – remove too little and one may not get the desired clinical result; remove too much and one risks impairing cognitive function. The prevalence of language deficits following resection of so-called “silent cortex” is relatively low (21%) if patients are screened with tasks used in the NHS; however, specifically developed neuropsychological tasks suggest the prevalence may actually be up to 91% (De Witte & Mariën, 2013). Current linguistic testing provisions are (1) insensitive to detect impairment; (2) lack a scientific basis; (3) not performed postoperatively; and (4) fail to specify guidelines for awake interventions.
This PhD project will develop a rigorous and theoretically motivated test battery for assessment of cognitive and language deficits in neurological populations to (1) maximise detection of deficits during intraoperative testing; (2) minimise postoperative deficits; and (3) maximise therapeutic efforts. This work will be of direct benefit to clinicians involved with cognitively impaired populations and provide a strong multidisciplinary impact in its application to a range of fields (i.e., cognitive neuroscience, language, neurology, and rehabilitation). The project is currently in the early stages and a systematic review of the literature is being conducted to establish which existing cognitive and language tests are predictive of better postoperative language function in brain tumour patients. This review will inform the subsequent development of a multimodal neuropsychological test-battery to be implemented pre, intra and postoperatively in awake craniotomy patients at the Walton Centre.
Plans for the future?
I would like to pursue an academic career studying disordered language, firstly securing a post-doctoral research position upon completing my PhD to gain further research experience and publications. In the long-term, I aim to secure a lectureship and aspire to one day become an expert in my chosen research area. I want to make a significant research contribution that not only advances our knowledge of the human mind and brain, but also helps to improve the lives of people with neurological disorders.


2015, University of Nottingham, Nottingham, United Kingdom, Psychology Research Methods M.Sc.
2014, Liverpool John Moores University, United Kingdom, Applied Psychology B.Sc. (Hons)

Postgraduate training

Research Assistant, United Kingdom, Liverpool John Moores University, 2016 - 2016

Journal article

Brooks SJ, MacKenzie-Phelan R, Tully J, Schioth HB. 2020. Review of the Neural Processes of Working Memory Training: Controlling the Impulse to Throw the Baby Out With the Bathwater Frontiers in Psychiatry, 11 DOI Author Url Publisher Url Public Url

Ogden RS, MacKenzie-Phelan1 R, Montgomery C, Fisk J, Wearden J. 2018. Executive processes and timing: comparing timing with and without reference memory. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, DOI Author Url Publisher Url Public Url

Conference publication

Ogden RS, Mackenzie-Phelan R, Montgomery C, Fisk J, Wearden J. Executive Processes and Timing: Comparing Timing Timing Research Forum

Ogden R, Mackenzie-Phelan R, Montgomery C, Fisk J, Wearden J. Executive Processes and Timing: Comparing Timing with and without reference memory. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, Experimental Psychology Society