Funded PhD Opportunity The effects of moderate-to-vigorous intensity physical activity on cognitive function in adult populations

This opportunity is now closed.

Subject: Psychology, Psychiatry and Neuroscience


In addition to the essential criteria noted below, the Degree (or equivalent) qualification must be in Psychology or a closely related discipline. We will accept applications from candidates who are about to hold

* a minimum of and Upper Second Class Honours (2:1) Degree in Psychology or closely related discipline (or overseas award deemed equivalent via UK NARIC) .

* An additional Desirable criteria that may be applied is holding, being about to hold, a Master's level qualification in Psychology or a closely related discipline.

*You must provide official, final results of qualifications used to meet the academic requirements before the start of the studentship

Dementia and stroke are the most common neurological conditions in elderly populations and leading causes of morbidity and mortality worldwide (Weinstein et al., 2013). A major risk factor is physical inactivity and higher levels of physical activity (PA) may reduce the risk of cognitive decline in later life by 38% in comparison with a sedentary lifestyle (Sofi et al., 2011). Activity intensity may moderate these effects of PA, however, and moderate-to-vigorous intensity PA (e.g. brisk walking, running) is more strongly associated with improved cognitive function than lower intensity PA (e.g. leisurely walking, cycling), for example (Northey et al., 2017). One explanation is that higher intensity activity may increase processing demands on the brain and provide a greater stimulus to reduce age-related cognitive decline than lower intensity activities (Raichlen & Alexander, 2017).

Running is of particular interest given a 30% lower risk of all-cause mortality and a 40% lower risk of stroke mortality for runners when compared with non-runners (Lee et al., 2014). Despite these findings, many questions remain. Although previous reviews have considered the moderating roles of PA modality and intensity on cognitive function (Chang et al., 2012), walking/running-based research has primarily involved low-to-moderate intensities (Lambourne & Tomporowski, 2010).

No studies have compared the acute or long-term effects of moderate and higher intensity walking/running on cognitive function. Consequently, the optimum exercise ‘dose’ (intensity*duration) to benefit cognition is unknown (Kelly et al., 2014). Furthermore, cognitive tasks in acute running studies have only assessed processing speed (Collardeau et al., 2001) and a limited range of executive functions (e.g. response inhibition; Themanson & Hillman, 2006). Given the importance of executive functioning and memory in age-related cognitive decline (Smith et al., 2010), there is a pressing need to investigate the effects of moderate-to-vigorous intensity PA on a broader range of cognitive functions. This also applies to more specific populations (e.g. those recoverinig post-stroke) where little is known about the efficacy and effectiveness of PA, and more so the intensity of activity, on rehabilitation outcomes during the acute, sub-acute and chronic phases of stroke recovery (Billinger et al., 2014).

Study 1: This PhD programme will begin with a systematic review on the acute and long-term effects of moderate-to-vigorous intensity PA on cognitive function. The review will specifically focus on brisk walking/running and explore potential moderators such as intensity, duration, and frequency of activity, and the type of cognitive function assessed.

Study 2: The findings of the systematic review will inform a longer-term (e.g. 12-weeks) RCT on the effects of moderate-to-vigorous intensity PA on cognitive function in previously sedentary adults. Participants will be drawn from existing community-based PA programmes (e.g. Couch to 5k).

Primary outcomes will include working memory and strategy use, executive functions (e.g. spatial planning and motor control, inhibitory control), and sustained attention and attentional shifting.

Secondary outcomes will include training-induced physiological adaptations (e.g. VO2 peak), objective measures of changes in neuromuscular activity/excitability, muscle strength, and maximum voluntary contraction using EMG, and participants’ perceptions of Quality of Life. Post-training focus groups will explore participants’ perceptions of the running programmes to optimise future delivery of similar PA interventions. Study 3: A final series of case studies in clinical populations (e.g. adults in recovery post-stroke) will investigate activity-dependent neuroplasticity and synapse regeneration.

Current recommendations for PA in stroke recovery include both longer, lower-intensity activity doses (e.g. 20 – 60 minute walking, 3 times per week) and multiple short bouts of moderate-intensity PA (e.g. three 10-15 minute higher intensity bouts repeated) to increase aerobic capacity, improve gait efficiency, regain functional independence, and reduce the risk of recurrent cardiovascular events. However, exercise remains underutilised in stroke recovery and little is known about the efficacy and effectiveness of PA during stroke recovery (Billinger et al., 2014). These studies will adopt a case study approach to explore the benefits of exercise models on post-stroke recovery.

Outcome measures will include cognitive functioning and objective measures of changes in neuromuscular activity/excitability (as per study 2), measures of aerobic fitness and cardiovascular health (e.g. VO2 peak) and quality of life outcomes.

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)
  • Experience using research methods or other approaches relevant to the subject domain
  • Sound understanding of subject area as evidenced by a comprehensive research proposal
  • A comprehensive and articulate personal statement


    Vice Chancellors Research Scholarships (VCRS)

    The scholarships will cover tuition fees and a maintenance award of £15,009 per annum for three years (subject to satisfactory academic performance). Applications are invited from UK, European Union and overseas students.


    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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Key Dates

Submission Deadline
Monday 18 February 2019
Interview Date
w/c 11 March 2019


Coleraine campus

Coleraine campus
Our coastal and riverside campus focussing on science and health

Contact Supervisor

Dr Noel Brick

Other Supervisors

Apply online

Visit and quote reference number #345277 when applying for this PhD opportunity