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Funded PhD Opportunity

Nutrition and the gut microbiome: impact on brain health in older adults

Subject: Biomedical Sciences


Summary

Background

By 2050 the number of people aged 60 years and over is projected to reach 2 billion, of which an estimated 131 million will have dementia. Preventing or delaying the onset of the disease is a public health priority as dementia has profound implications for the individual and society. Dementia is a multifactorial disease and solutions that target its various risk factors are urgently required. Evidence suggests a protective role of certain dietary patterns (e.g. the ‘Mediterranean’ diet) or specific dietary components, including B-vitamins. As diet can be modified, it offers a strategy to potentially reduce the risk of developing dementia.

The gut microbiome (the totality of bacteria, viruses, protozoa, fungi and their collective genetic material present in the gastrointestinal tract) is taxonomically diverse and plays a vital role in health and disease. The microbiota of older people displays greater inter-individual variation and differs from the core microbiota and diversity levels of younger adults. This shift in the composition, function, and phylogenetic diversity of the gut microbiota (i.e. dysbiosis) is influenced by many factors including diet and is associated with several chronic diseases. In recent years this has led to considerable interest in understanding how the gut and brain are connected (the gut-brain axis) and how this connection is influenced by the gut microbiota.

Although most evidence comes from animal studies, research shows dementia patients have reduced diversity and altered microbiota composition compared to those without the disease and the gut microbiome is associated with cognitive performance in healthy community dwelling adults. Modulating the gut microbiome through dietary means could be beneficial in supporting healthy ageing.

PhD project

This project will utilise and build on a large all-island collaborative research project that has been developed over the last 10 years - the Trinity-Ulster, Department of Agriculture (TUDA) cohort study, providing extensive health data on over 5000 adults of 60+ years across Ireland.  The TUDA resource was established to assess nutritional, environmental and clinical factors in relation to health in ageing and has recently been extended to involve an in-depth investigation of genetic factors in relation to the ageing process, along with study of the gut microbiome. This PhD project is a nutrition-microbiology collaboration and will extend ongoing work by using state-of-the-art methodologies to investigate the composition and function of the gut microbiome. The overall aim will be to explore how the gut microbiome is influenced by diet and other environmental factors and the impact on brain health in TUDA participants. Next generation microbiome sequencing approaches will be applied to provide high taxonomic and functional resolution of the gut microbiome; allowing relationships between diet, cognitive function and the overall microbiome to be examined. This combination of cutting-edge nutritional research with microbiome analysis has the potential to have a significant impact on our understanding of human health and wellbeing.

This project will suit applicants who have excellent interpersonal skills and are willing to engage in collaborative research in Cork with the APC Microbiome Institute, encompassing Cork Institute of Technology (CIT) & Teagasc, to learn new laboratory skills and techniques for characterising microbiome composition and diversity.

Key references

Caracciolo B, Xu W, Collins S, et al. (2014) Cognitive decline, dietary factors and gut-brain interactions. Mechanisms of Ageing and Development. 136-137: 59-69.

Clooney AG, Fouhy F, Sleator RD, et al. (2016) Comparing Apples and Oranges?: Next Generation Sequencing and Its Impact on Microbiome Analysis. PLoS ONE 11(2): e0148028.

McCann A, McNulty H, Rigby J, et al. (2018) Effect of Area-Level Socioeconomic Deprivation on Risk of Cognitive Dysfunction in Older Adults. Journal of the American Geriatrics Society. 66(7): 1269-1275.

Moore K, Hughes CF, Ward M, et al. (2018) Diet, nutrition and the ageing brain: current evidence and new directions. Proceedings of the Nutrition Society. 77(2): 152-163.


Essential criteria

  • To hold, or expect to achieve by 15 August, an Upper Second Class Honours (2:1) Degree or equivalent from a UK institution (or overseas award deemed to be equivalent via UK NARIC) in a related or cognate field.
  • Sound understanding of subject area as evidenced by a comprehensive research proposal

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.

  • Completion of Masters at a level equivalent to commendation or distinction at Ulster
  • Experience using research methods or other approaches relevant to the subject domain
  • Work experience relevant to the proposed project
  • Publications - peer-reviewed
  • Publications record appropriate to career stage
  • Experience of presentation of research findings
  • A comprehensive and articulate personal statement
  • Use of personal initiative as evidenced by record of work above that normally expected at career stage.
  • Relevant professional qualification and/or a Degree in a Health or Health related area

Funding

    The University offers the following awards to support PhD study and applications are invited from UK, EU and overseas for the following levels of support:

    Vice Chancellors Research Studentship (VCRS)

    Full award (full-time PhD fees + DfE level of maintenance grant + RTSG for 3 years).

    This scholarship will cover full-time PhD tuition fees and provide the recipient with £15,000 maintenance grant per annum for three years (subject to satisfactory academic performance). This scholarship also comes with £900 per annum for three years as a research training support grant (RTSG) allocation to help support the PhD researcher.

    Vice-Chancellor’s Research Bursary (VCRB)

    Part award (full-time PhD fees + 50% DfE level of maintenance grant + RTSG for 3 years).

    This scholarship will cover full-time PhD tuition fees and provide the recipient with £7,500 maintenance grant per annum for three years (subject to satisfactory academic performance). This scholarship also comes with £900 per annum for three years as a research training support grant (RTSG) allocation to help support the PhD researcher.

    Vice-Chancellor’s Research Fees Bursary (VCRFB)

    Fees only award (PhD fees + RTSG for 3 years).

    This scholarship will cover full-time PhD tuition fees for three years (subject to satisfactory academic performance). This scholarship also comes with £900 per annum for three years as a research training support grant (RTSG) allocation to help support the PhD researcher.

    Department for the Economy (DFE)

    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 fee’s component of the studentship (no maintenance award is provided). For Non-EU nationals the candidate must be "settled" in the UK. This scholarship also comes with £900 per annum for three years as a research training support grant (RTSG) allocation to help support the PhD researcher.

    Due consideration should be given to financing your studies; for further information on cost of living etc. please refer to: www.ulster.ac.uk/doctoralcollege/postgraduate-research/fees-and-funding/financing-your-studies


Other information


The Doctoral College at Ulster University


Reviews

Profile picture of Kieran O'Donnell

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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Profile picture of Michelle Clements Clements

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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Profile picture of William Crowe

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
Friday 7 February 2020

Interview Date
9 to 20 March 2020


Applying

Apply Online  


Campus

Coleraine campus

Coleraine campus
The feeling of community at our Coleraine campus makes for a warm and welcoming student experience.


Contact supervisor

Dr Leane Hoey


Other supervisors

  • Dr William Snelling
  •  
  • Professor Helene McNulty
  • Prof Roy Sleator, Cork Institute of Technology (CIT), Bishopstown, Cork Prof Paul Cotter, Teagasc Food Research Centre, Fermoy Co. Cork Supervisor - Joint Two Dr Catherine Hughes - Lecturer in Public Health Nutrition

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