PhD studies

PhD studies

Interested in our PhD studies?

Take a look at some of our current PhD projects to find out what we are working on.

Can mindfulness meditation reduce the perceived duration of pain?

The main aim of the study is to investigate the negative effects of pain on the perception of time and to test whether mindfulness meditation can compensate for these negative effects. Firstly the study aims to investigate in detail how pain influences the perception of time. Particularly, how time perception is affected differently by short painful stimuli and by a constant state of pain. Secondly the study investigates the different time experience of chronic pain and healthy populations using visual, tactile and painful stimuli. At this stage the project wants to focus on the “drag by” feeling that is common to chronic pain sufferers regarding the daily time experience. Finally, mindfulness meditation is introduced as a possible compensating technique to improve the quality of daily life of chronic pain population. During all the phases of the study, physiological techniques are used to test the role of sympathetic and parasympathetic activity on time perception.

Name: Andrea Piovesan

Start date: December 2015

Funder: LJMU postgraduate studentship

Psychophysiological indicators of listening effort

About 10 million people in the UK suffer from some degree of hearing impairment or hearing loss, which often decreases considerably their quality of life. Unfortunately, the acceptance of hearing aids is low—about 25% of the persons who own a hearing aid never use it. One of the reasons that hearing impaired people mention for not wearing their devices is the inefficacy of the hearing aid to reduce listening effort and the resulting fatigue in everyday listening. Audiologists are therefore interested in incorporating indicators of listening effort in hearing aid fitting to increase hearing aid performance and acceptance.

In a first LJMU publication on the topic, Michael Richter demonstrated that changes in pre-ejection period—an indicator of sympathetic impact on the heart—reflect changes in listening demand and listening motivation ( In the frame of a Faculty of Science PhD studentship, Kate Slade will examine the quality of cardiovascular indicators of listening effort more comprehensively by investigating the impact of listening tasks on the activity of the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. Her work will also provide insights into whether autonomic responses enable the prediction of self-reported fatigue resulting from listening effort.

Name: Katherine Slade

Start date: December 2015

Funder: LJMU postgraduate studentship

Media-multitasking and executive functioning in young adults

Recent years have seen an increase in media-multitasking, where people engage with information streams from two or more media within concurrent or overlapping periods of time. Media-multitasking is particularly prevalent in young adults, and previous research has shown that there are relationships between self-reported media-multitasking behaviour and some aspects of cognitive functioning. The initial aim of the PhD project will be to determine the relationship between self-reported media-multitasking frequency, and a range of cognitive control processes, known as executive functions. The project will then move on to examine which executive functions are the best predictors media-multitasking performance measured in the lab. Finally, the project will use an experimental approach to test whether prolonged media-multitasking fatigues executive functions (relative to serial engagement with different media). Findings from this project will develop our theoretical understanding of the cognitive processes involved in media-multitasking.

Name: Alexandra Seddon

Start date: December 2015

Funder: LJMU postgraduate studentship

Silent cortex? Or are we just not listening correctly? Improving neurosurgical intervention and clinical outcome for brain cancer patients

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 Parliamentary report in 2016 highlighted that patients are failed at every stage – from diagnosis and treatment to research funding, with survivors experiencing distressing cognitive impairments. The report places the onus on the Government and scientific community to take immediate remedial action to correct decades of under-funding, which 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, during which the patient is awake whilst the exposed brain is electrically stimulated in key functional areas. A neuro-navigation map is generated to guide the neurosurgeon to the tumour with superior precision, while avoiding areas shown to control important functions. 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). The current test provisions used to measure linguistic functioning are (1) insensitive to detect impairment; (2) lack a scientific basis; (3) not performed postoperatively; and (4) fail to specify guidelines for awake interventions. The current 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 will be of direct benefit to clinicians involved with cognitively impaired populations. With no prior studies in this field that synthesise this innovative and advanced approach to the neuroscience of cognition and language, this project will comprehensively address the functional mechanisms that underpin these processes within the brain. This provides a fundamental shift in the approach to understanding cognition and will yield original theoretical findings that contribute to resolving core questions and controversies (e.g., functional specificity of brain regions). Results will be relevant for neuroscience and cognition research, whilst contributing to other disciplines including language, neurology, and rehabilitation. The project also addresses the research barriers highlighted in the Parliamentary report by offering high-level engagement with NHS beneficiaries, and as such will be established as a potential source of information that the Government can consult.

Name: Rhiannon MacKenzie-Phelan

Start date: September 2016

Funder: LJMU postgraduate studentship

An experimental investigation of pain in Autism Spectrum Disorders

The objective is to examine whether pain experiences differ in individuals with ASD compared to typically developing controls. This research will comprise 3-4 experimental studies. The first study will examine whether autistic traits in the general population predict pain thresholds using a series of standardised Quantitative Sensory Testing (QST) protocols (Rolke et al., 2006). The second will expand upon the first and use the same QST protocols and will directly compare the pain threshold of individuals with ASD to those of individuals with no known developmental or psychiatric disorder. The second half of this PhD will examine the social and physiological expression of pain in ASD and how this might be different to typical populations. To address these, a number of observations aimed at establishing pain response in individuals with ASD to potentially painful routine medical procedures will be conducted. These same recordings will then be further analysed for additional behaviours displayed during and after painful procedures and will be coded in order to identify any common behaviours not typically seen in the general population. This will establish whether a set of ASD pain behaviours is evident and if so, ascertain their potential diagnostic validity and reliability.

Name: Ms Sarah Vaughan

Start date: November 2015

Funder: LJMU postgraduate studentship

Exploring the impact of taster status on oral sensory processing

There are three types of tasters within the population; Non-tasters (NT), Medium tasters (MT) and Supertasters (ST). Different tasters experience the oral sensory world differently, through different taste intensities and liking of bitter, salty, sweet and fat containing substances. ST’s reported a greater sense of burn from oral irritants like chili peppers and menthol than NT’s and MT’s, this finding is particularly true on the tip of the tongue.

Name: Sharon Smith

Start date: November 2013

Funder: BBSRC CASE Award - Glaxo Smith Kline (GSK, Ph.D. Studentship)

Peripheral Pain Mechanisms: The electrophysiological response properties of myelinated and unmyelinated afferents in normal and neuropathic nerves

Using microneurography and psychophysical techniques, the study aims to investigate how the activity of non-nociceptive peripheral somatosensory nerve fibres (such as touch and temperature receptors) may contribute to symptoms in neuropathic pain, a category of chronic pain which affects approximately 15% of the population. Microneurography is a uniquely suitable technique that allows the recording of the responses and activity of single nerve fibres, in awake, comfortable and responsive human participants.

Name: Adarsh Makdani

Start date: May 2014

Funder: The Pain Relief Foundation

The skin as an anti-social organ: Emotional processing of touch in Autism Spectrum Disorders

Recently a class of nerve fibres have been discovered in the hairy skin, these respond predominantly to socially salient somatosensory stimulation, typical of a gentle stroking touch. It has been proposed that these C-Tactile (CT) fibres encode socially relevant and rewarding tactile information about our interactions. The thesis aims to discover how CT activation is processed in individuals with ASD to determine how these afferents may affect early childhood development and the manifestation of ASD. In the first study participants were required to watch a series of videos depicting one actor touching the upper body of another. We found that neurotypical individuals with high autistic traits (measured by the Autism Spectrum Quotient) vicariously reported touch as less pleasant and less desired compared to individuals with low autistic traits. Furthermore these ‘high AQ’ individuals were less able to distinguish between the typically pleasant touch that activates CT fibres and the typically discriminative non-CT-optimal touch across all touch locations.

The next study will measure the physiological and behavioural responses of individuals with ASD to CT optimal and non-CT-optimal touch delivered manually (using a soft brush) and automatically (using our rotary tactile stimulator machine). In future the aim is to measure the electrophysical and neurochemical differences between individuals with ASD and neurotypicals in response to CT-optimal touch.

Name: Connor Haggarty

Start date: September 2014

Funder: LJMU postgraduate research studentship

If you are interested in pursuing postgraduate study with a member of the RCBB, please contact the staff member directly. Alternatively, contact the postgraduate tutor Professor Francis McGlone.