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Computational, psychological and physiological basis of fatigue: Combining decision neuroscience with spinal imaging

Primary Supervisor: Dr. Matthew Apps, Centre for Human Brain Health

Secondary supervisor: Dr. Ali Khatibi, Centre of Precision Rehabilitation for Spinal Pain

PhD project title: Computational, psychological and physiological basis of fatigue: Combining decision neuroscience with spinal imaging

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 and why do we experience fatigue? MSN is funded by a £1.25m, BBSRC David Phillips Fellowship. Interested candidates are strongly encouraged to get in contact ( for informal discussion about projects.

Project: Most daily tasks require the exertion of effort over an extended period of time. From a workout at the gym to deciding whether to persist with a task at work, much of our activities require us to keep deciding that effort is ‘worth it’. People differ widely in how able they are to persist, often attributing failure to ‘fatigue’. However, the nature and source of this ‘fatigue’ is unclear.

Theoretical accounts have long suggested that peripheral signals from the body are carried through the spinal cord up to the brain. Signals from the body are stronger when more fatigued, influencing decision-making centres in the brain that decide whether to persist with a task. However, there is limited evidence for such accounts, as technology had been unable to precisely measure spinal signals, brain signals, and motivated behaviour simultaneously. The aim of the proposed project is to provide some of the first links between computational processes, brain mechanisms and bodily signals.

The project will use a combination of spinal-imaging, brain imaging, computational modelling and novel tasks from psychology and neuroscience to test theories of motivated behaviour in healthy people. Using these tools, students will be given the independence to address their own questions of interest about how signals in the spine influence brain signals that guide decision-making and how fatigue shapes behaviour. This project brings together supervisory expertise in motivation, computational modelling and brain imaging (Dr. Apps) as well as cognition and spinal imaging (Dr. Khatibi). The student would get training in methods from psychology, neuroimaging and computational science, allowing them to develop a wide range of skills.

Relevant papers (See: for more MSN papers)

  1. Chong, T.T.J.,* Apps, M.,* et al., 2017. Neurocomputational mechanisms underlying subjective valuation of effort costs. PLoS Biology, 15(2). *equal contributors
  2. Eippert, F., et al., 2009. Direct Evidence for Spinal Cord Involvement in Placebo Analgesia. Science 5591(326)
  3. Muller et al., 2021. Neural and computational mechanisms of momentary fatigue and persistence in effort-based choice. Nature Communications
  4. Vahdat, S., et al., 2020. Resting-state brain and spinal cord networks in humans are functionally integrated. PLoS Biology

BBSRC Strategic Research Priority: Understanding the Rules of Life: Neuroscience and behaviour & Systems Biology

    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
    • Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging of the Brain (Brain – fMRI)
    • Spinal imaging (Spinal – fMRI)
    • Programming (MATLAB/R)
    • Computational Modelling

    Contact: Dr Matthew Apps, University of Birmingham