Funded PhD Opportunity Early predictors of mental health: the role of prenatal vitamin D status in neurodevelopment disorders in offspring

This opportunity is now closed.

Subject: Biomedical Sciences


The Seychelles Child Development Study (SCDS) is an established prospective mother-child cohort study investigating the risk-benefits of fish consumption during pregnancy on child development.  We have consistently reported that beneficial effects of maternal nutritional status (long chain n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid status) from high fish consumption outweigh any adverse effects of prenatal methylmercury exposure on neurodevelopment.  Fish is also a rich source of vitamin D and together with high endogenous vitamin D synthesis from continual UV exposure from sunlight, places the SCDS in a unique position to investigate effects of prenatal vitamin D exposure on neurodevelopment.  Early-life vitamin D status modulates foetal programming and influences long-term development of the child including language and cognitive development, and susceptibility to autism spectrum disorder (ASD) phenotypes.  Furthermore, vitamin D is an immunomodulator and may potentially modify any adverse effects of methylmercury on these neurodevelopmental outcomes.

The overall objective of this study is to investigate the role of prenatal vitamin D status on child neurodevelopmental outcomes (primarily cognitive, language and motor development) and incident of ASD (at age 7 years) in a high-fish eating equatorial population.  This objective will be addressed through the following study aims and procedures.

STUDY 1: To conduct a systematic review and meta-analysis investigating the role of vitamin D in neurodevelopment including ASD.

STUDY 2: To assess the effects of prenatal vitamin D status on child neurodevelopment in a high fish eating equatorial population.  Vitamin D status will be measured in maternal and cord blood samples from the SCDS Nutrition Cohort 2 (NC2) using LC-MS/MS and statistical analysis will be carried out to assess relationships with a range of child neurodevelopmental outcomes assessed at 20 months (developmental delays) and 7 years of age (developmental delays and ASD screening).

STUDY 3: To work with SCDS collaborators at the Karolinska Institute, Sweden, to investigate genetic factors influencing vitamin D status by examining both single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) and DNA methylation of genes involved in the regulation of vitamin D metabolism.

STUDY 4: To investigate the potential modifying effects of prenatal vitamin D status on associations between methylmercury and neurodevelopment, and to examine immunomodulation as a potential mechanism.  Statistical analysis will be conducted in collaboration with SCDS biostatistians at University of Rochester, US using cytokine profile, methylmercury, vitamin D status and neurodevelopmental outcome data.

This project will involve working within an international multi-disciplinary research team from Ulster University, University of Rochester, US, Karolinska Institute, Sweden and the Republic of Seychelles.  Based at the Nutrition Innovation Centre for food and Health (NICHE) within the Biomedical Sciences Research Institute, this work involves collaboration with mental health researchers (Psychologists) from the Bamford Centre for Mental Health and Wellbeing creating a new Ulster cross-disciplinary research team focusing on early-life predictors of neurodevelopment.  This work will provide important innovative data on the role of vitamin D in neurodevelopment and ASD as an early predictor of mental health to policy makers with the potential to impact maternal and child health worldwide.

Essential Criteria

  • Upper Second Class Honours (2:1) Degree or equivalent from a UK institution (or overseas award deemed to be equivalent via UK NARIC)
  • Sound understanding of subject area as evidenced by a comprehensive research proposal
  • A comprehensive and articulate personal statement

Desirable Criteria

If the University receives a large number of applicants for the project, the following desirable criteria may be applied to shortlist applicants for interview.

  • First Class Honours (1st) Degree
  • Masters at 65%
  • Completion of Masters at a level equivalent to commendation or distinction at Ulster
  • Research project completion within taught Masters degree or MRES
  • Experience using research methods or other approaches relevant to the subject domain
  • Work experience relevant to the proposed project
  • Publications - peer-reviewed
  • Experience of presentation of research findings



    The scholarship will cover tuition fees at the Home rate and a maintenance allowance of £15,009 per annum for three years. EU applicants will only be eligible for the fees component of the studentship (no maintenance award is provided).  For Non EU nationals the candidate must be "settled" in the UK.

Other information

The Doctoral College at Ulster University

Launch of the Doctoral College

Current PhD researchers and an alumnus shared their experiences, career development and the social impact of their work at the launch of the Doctoral College at Ulster University.

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My experience has been great and the people that I have worked with have been amazing

Kieran O'Donnell - 3D printing of biological cells for tissue engineering applications

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Completing the MRes provided me with a lot of different skills, particularly in research methods and lab skills.

Michelle Clements Clements - MRes - Life and Health Sciences

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Throughout my PhD I’ve been provided with continuous support and guidance by my supervisors and the staff at the University.I’ve also received many opportunities to further enhance my professional development in the form of teaching experience and presenting my work at conferences which will aid in my pursuit of a career in academia or industry.

William Crowe

Key Dates

Submission Deadline
Monday 19 February 2018
Interview Date
6th, 7th or 8th March 2018

Contact Supervisor

Dr Maria Mulhern

Other Supervisors

Apply online

Visit and quote reference number #246426 when applying for this PhD opportunity