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The Plasticity Group is a multidisciplinary group of researchers with a common interest in brain plasticity.

We use a range of behavioural, neuroimaging, and brain stimulation techniques to study plasticity in both healthy and clinical populations. Specific projects offered for entry in 2016 are detailed below.  The Plasticity Group is part of the Nuffield Department of Clinical Neurosciences (NDCN) and applicants would need to apply to NDCN before their deadline of 8 January 2016.  For more information, please see the Graduate Student section on the NDCN website.

Well before this deadline, prospective applicants should contact potential supervisors to have informal discuss about the projects and their suitability to apply. We anticipate discussing projects with prospective applicants in November.



Example projects offered


Real-time fMRI effects on brain structure and behaviour

Supervisors: Heidi Johansen-Berg and Cassandra Sampaio Baptista

Real-time fMRI is a MRI technique that could potentially be used as an adjunct method in rehabilitation of stroke patients. Previous research using real-time fMRI has shown that, after training, healthy participants could modulate the activation (as measured through fMRI) of a particular brain area when provided with real-time feedback of the level of activation (see (Weiskopf, 2012) for review). Additionally, we have recently found that participants are able to bidirectionally modulate brain activity of the motor cortex and that this impacts structural connectivity (Sampaio-Baptista et al., in preparation).

Potential projects could test the effects of multiple sessions of real-time feedback on brain structure and behavioural measures in healthy participants and stroke patients.


Recommended reading

Weiskopf N (2012) Real-time fMRI and its application to neurofeedback. Neuroimage 62:682-692.

deCharms RC (2008) Applications of real-time fMRI. Nat Rev Neurosci 9:720-729.

deCharms RC, Christoff K, Glover GH, Pauly JM, Whitfield S, Gabrieli JD (2004) Learned regulation of spatially localized brain activation using real-time fMRI. Neuroimage 21:436-443.


Structural white matter plasticity in rodent models

Supervisors: Heidi Johansen-Berg and Cassandra Sampaio Baptista

We have previously shown that Diffusion Tensor Imaging (DTI), a non-invasive MRI technique that allows to probe white matter microstructure, can detect changes in white matter (WM) in response to learning, including increased myelination, in humans and rodents (Scholz et al., 2009; Sampaio-Baptista et al., 2013). Furthermore, optogenetic stimulation of premotor neurons leads to increases in myelination and oligodendrocytes precursor cells (OPCs) proliferation and differentiation (Gibson et al., 2014). These studies show that WM changes in response to skill learning and to neuronal activity. Future projects would use an interdisciplinary approach and combine MRI techniques with knock out models and optogenetics to investigate changes in white matter structure in response to skill learning or neuronal activity modulation.


Recommended reading:

C. Sampaio-Baptista et al., Motor Skill Learning Induces Changes in White Matter Microstructure and Myelination. The Journal of Neuroscience 33, 19499 (December 11, 2013, 2013).

J. Scholz, M. C. Klein, T. E. Behrens, H. Johansen-Berg, Training induces changes in white-matter architecture. Nat Neurosci 12, 1370 (2009).

E. M. Gibson et al., Neuronal activity promotes oligodendrogenesis and adaptive myelination in the mammalian brain. Science 344, 1252304 (May 2, 2014).


Effects of physical exercise on academic performance in school children 

Supervisors: Heidi Johansen-Berg and Kathryn Atherton

There is growing evidence that physical exercise can affect brain structure and function and can improve cognitive performance. In response to a recent call for innovative educational interventions, inspired by neuroscience, we have secured funding for a large-scale randomised controlled study (on 60 schools) of the effects of a school-based physical exercise intervention on academic performance.  Secondary outcomes will include effects on cognition (memory and executive function), fitness and wellbeing.  A subset of children (n=100) will also undergo MRI brain scans and VO2 max tests before and after the intervention, as well as 1-2 week periods of 24hr accelerometry.  The intervention will be delivered for one academic year from Sept 2016-July 2017 and will target children in Year 8.  We would consider applications from potential DPhil students to work on sub-projects within this large study. Potential topics could include:

Effects of the intervention on sleep, fatigue and mood

Effects of the intervention on daily physical activity

Relationship between features of the intervention sessions and academic outcomes

Effects of acute bouts of exercise on cognitive performance 


Recommended reading:

Hillman CH, Erickson KI, Kramer AF. Be smart, exercise your heart: exercise effects on brain and cognition. Nat Rev Neurosci. 2008 Jan;9(1):58-65. 

Hillman CH, Pontifex MB, Raine LB, Castelli DM, Hall EE, Kramer AF.The effect of acute treadmill walking on cognitive control and academic achievement in preadolescent children. Neuroscience. 2009 Mar 31;159(3):1044-54

Donnelly JE, et al .Physical Activity Across the Curriculum (PAAC): a randomized controlled trial to promote physical activity and diminish overweight and obesity in elementary school children. Prev Med. 2009 Oct;49(4):336-41