PhD studentship: Neural and computational mechanisms of motivated behaviour

Closing Date
12 Jan 2020
Competition funded (UK/European students only).

Primary Supervisor: Dr Matthew Apps, School of Psychology and Centre for Human Brain Health

Secondary supervisor: Professor Ole Jensen, Centre for Human Brain Health, UoB; Dr. Joe Galea, School of Psychology, UoB

PhD project title: Neural and computational mechanisms of motivated behaviour

University of Registration: University of Birmingham.

Project outline:

The aim of the Motivation and Social Neuroscience (MSN; lab is to understand the biology of human motivation. We use a combination of psychological and neuroscience techniques, to address questions such as: Why does the brain find things effortful? Why do we experience fatigue? and how do people ‘forage’ for rewards? MSN is funded by a £1.25m, BBSRC David Phillips Fellowship, moving from Oxford University to UoB in summer 2020. Interested candidates are welcome to get in contact ( for informal discussion about projects.


Being motivated is essential for a successful life. Yet, healthy adults differ considerably in their levels of motivation. Some people live physically and socially active lives, while other people can be sedentary, suffer from apathy, or become easily fatigued. However, the mechanisms in the brain that underlie reduced motivation are poorly understood.

It has been suggested that variability in motivation comes from how the brain weighs up the costs (such as effort) and benefits (rewards) of actions. Less motivated people calculate the costs of acting differently. Recently MSN lab has developed novel computational approaches for understanding the cognitive processes underlying how people trade-off the costs and benefits of actions, that can also quantify variability between people in levels of motivation. The aim of the proposed projects would be to provide some of the first links between these computational processes and brain mechanisms.

  1. Oscillatory mechanisms of motivation

Neural oscillations (rhythms in electrical activity) are a fundamental mechanism that enables the synchronization of neural activity within and across brain regions, and promotes the precise temporal coordination of brain processes that underlie behaviour. Despite considerable work exploring the oscillatory mechanisms that underlie cognition, memory and perception, very little has examined the oscillatory mechanisms underlying effort, fatigue or motivation.

This project would use a combination of functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI), EEG (Electronencephalography), Magnetoencephalography (MEG) and computational methods, to understand how different neural oscillations in specific anatomical systems underlie feelings such as fatigue and effort, and how this impacts on motivation. The student would get training in methods from psychology, neuroimaging and data science, and conduct novel research at the forefront of research understanding the brain rhythms underlying motivation.

  1. The psycho-pharmacology of effort

Animal models suggest that the willingness to incur costs to obtain benefits is driven by the neuromodulator dopamine. Increases in dopamine signalling lead to a greater willingness to put in effort. In Parkinson’s Disease (PD), a disorder characterised by depletion to the dopamine system, impairments to motivation are some of the most common secondary symptoms. However, the links between the dopaminergic system, the psychological processes underlying fatigue and effort, and impaired motivation in PD are poorly understood. The proposed PhD would link together the brain’s dopamine system, how it changes across the lifespan, and how depletion in PD links to motivational impairments.

This project would use a combination of computational modelling, fMRI, pharmacological modulations, and testing in PD patients to reveal new insights into the role of dopamine in health and disordered motivation. The student would get training in methods from psychology, neuroimaging and neurology, allowing them to develop skills in the emerging field of ‘computational neurology’.

Relevant papers (More MSN papers):

  1. Chong, T.T.J.,* Apps, M.,* et al., 2017. PLoS biology15(2). *equal contributors
  2. Le Heron, C et al., 2019. BioRxiv, p.709857.
  3. Lockwood, P.L., et al., 2017. Nature human behaviour1(7), p.0131.
  4. Meyniel, F., et al., 2013. PNAS110(7), pp.2641-2646.

BBSRC Strategic Research Priority: Understanding the Rules of Life: Neuroscience and Behaviour

Techniques that will be undertaken during the project:

Depending on the aims of the project, the interests of the student and how their independent research develops, there are multiple techniques that can be learnt in these projects, including:

  • Paradigm (task) development
  • Computational modelling
  • Functional MRI (fMRI, brain imaging)
  • Combined fMRI-EEG
  • MEG
  • Programming
  • Patient testing
  • Pharmacology

Contact: Dr Matthew Apps, University of Birmingham

For more information and to apply, please click here. 

Contact Details

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