Does observing actions towards food excite the human motor system?

This project will investigate the neural effects of observing actions towards food and non-food, using transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) to assess activity in the human motor system.

Department: Psychology

Supervised by: Nicholas P Holmes

The Placement Project

Previous research shows that when humans observe actions, the motor system responds as if the action were being performed by the observer themself. In previous experiments in our lab (and as part of a UROP 2012 placement) we have found that there are early kinematic differences between grasp-to-eat and grasp-to-place actions, but that observers are unable to detect these differences or to predict the action goal. This project will explore whether the neural responses to observing these actions are different, i.e., whether the motor system can, unconsciously, distinguish eating from other actions. This placement provides the student with an opportunity to contribute to a multi-disciplinary RETF- and EU-funded PhD project in the School of Psychology and Clinical Language Sciences, which falls into two of the University’s research priority areas: ‘Food’ and ‘Health’. The student working on this project would be responsible for an experiment using transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) to explore the neural effects of viewing actions towards different food and non-food items, as well as assisting with other experiments running in the Lab. The student would gain experience in the full research process, from background research and hypothesis generation, to participant recruitment, data collection and analysis, oral presentation, and report-writing. Training in the use of TMS would be extremely valuable to a student considering a career in neuroscience research.


The student will undertake a wide range of research tasks as part of the placement: -Literature search, reading, & personal study (1 weeks' work, spread across the placement) -Participant recruitment, using the Hand Laboratory's Participant Database (~1 days' work) -Data collection using TMS (3 weeks’ work, always under supervision) -Data analysis (1 week's work) -Report-writing, creating a presentation, communicating results, post-placement preparation activities (1 week’s work) -Weekly meetings & progress reports with the supervisors, 1 hour each. Meetings in weeks 3 and 5 will involve more detailed and structured progress reviews. In Week 1, the student will be trained on the laboratory’s recruitment database, will read and discuss background literature, and pilot-test the experiment. In Weeks 2–5, participants will be recruited and tested, and the data will be analysed. In Week 6, the student will write up and present the project's results to the Perception and Action group. One or both supervisors will be in the School, and contactable throughout the placement (email, phone, in person).

Skills, knowledge and experience required

The student should show an interest in the background and the goals of the project, as well demonstrating an interest in other ongoing work in the lab. In addition the student is expected to have good knowledge and understanding resulting from the first two years of study as a psychology undergraduate: -Experimental design and methods -Ethical issues in research -Numeracy and statistics, experience of Microsoft Excel and SPSS software

Skills which will be developed during the placement

This placement will significantly enhance the student's employability both within and outside of the scientific and research sector. Specific research skills to be gained, which cannot be acquired elsewhere during the degree, include: -Understanding and using TMS and electromyography (EMG) -Using a custom web-based participant recruitment database -Using Matlab software for programming experiments and data analysis -Working on part of a larger research project, within a research team and a thriving research department. The research area is one in which several School academics are actively involved (Chakrabarti, Christakou, Holmes, Houston-Price). Additional knowledge will therefore benefit the student’s learning in their third-year modules and in their research project. Other transferable skills which will be developed include: -Scientific writing skills, drafting a written report of the experiments carried out -Oral presentation skills, by presenting the results of the research to the research group meeting -Scientific communication skills, by exposure to others' presentations during meetings and seminars -Team-working, resource-management, & communication skills, by working alongside MSc, PhD, post-doctoral, and academic researchers

Place of Work

The Hand Laboratory, Room GS17, School of Psychology & Clinical Language Sciences

Hours of Work

09:00-17:00, Monday-Friday

Approximate Start and End Dates (not fixed)

Monday 01 July 2013 - Friday 09 August 2013

How to Apply

Applicants will submit a 1–2 page CV which includes relevant study, research experience, employment, and key skills, and a 100-200 word personal statement about their goals and careers plans, as well as a 1 page covering letter explaining their motivation for applying, and how their skills and experience match those of the placement. After the deadline, up to four candidates will be shortlisted and will attend an interview conducted by Nicholas Holmes, Katherine Naish (PhD student), and one independent academic staff member.

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