PhD Opportunity

*Eastbio*: Decoding the genetics of cognitive functions

University of St Andrews

Dr Silvia Paracchini

Deadline: 16th December 2021


Project description

How did human cognitive abilities evolve? What are the genes involved in cognition? Are different cognitive functions, such as language and mathematical abilities, controlled by the same mechanisms? Answering these questions is very challenging, but unprecedented resources have allowed initial and highly promising discoveries in this field. Large cohorts characterised with a wide range of cognitive traits and genomic data are now available, and reference datasets that provide multiple layers of functional annotations for the human genome are constantly growing. By using this type of data, our recent genome-wide association study (GWAS) for language abilities pinpointed specific genomic regions which tended to show signatures of recent and rapid evolution in humans. The same language-associated regions are also regulating the expression of genes during neurodevelopment.

Building on these findings, the present project will investigate specific research questions with a range of computational approaches. GWAS for different cognitive abilities, e.g. memory and maths skills will identify specific genetic variants and genomic regions and allow follow-up analyses. For example, comparative genomics will assess whether the regions associated with cognitive abilities overlap with ultra-conserved or rapidly evolving sequences. The results will show whether cognitive abilities evolved via similar mechanisms or whether the pattern identified for language is distinctively unique. As observed for most human traits, the associated genetic variants are likely to influence gene expression regulation. GWAS analysis will be integrated with high quality reference gene expression and epigenetic datasets derived from different tissues and different cell types. These data will allow us to test whether the variants associated with cognitive traits have a functional effect in specific cells or brain regions.

All data required by the project have already been generated and are immediately available. Training will be provided by three experienced supervisors (Silvia Paracchini, Sonja Vernes and Andy Lynch) who have established track records for the approaches required for the success of this project. Their leading roles in international consortia will provide access to large data resources as well as opportunities to further develop new lines of investigation.

If you want to address big questions, learn cutting-edge computational methods, and work as part of multidisciplinary and international teams, then this is the ideal project for you.

For enquiries, contact Silvia Paracchini


This 4 year PhD project is part of a competition funded by EASTBIO BBSRC Doctoral Training Partnership-

This opportunity is open to UK and International students and provides funding to cover stipend and UK level tuition fees. For international candidates, the University of St Andrews will cover the Home-International fee difference.

How to apply

Application instructions can be found on the EASTBIO website-

1)     Download and complete the Equality, Diversity and Inclusion survey.

2)     Download and complete the EASTBIO Application Form.

3)     Submit an application to St Andrews University through the Online Application Portal

Your online application must include the following documents:

–         Completed EASTBIO application form

–         2 References (to be completed on the EASTBIO Reference Form, also found on the EASTBIO website)

–         Academic Qualifications

–         English Language Qualification (if applicable)


Unfortunately due to workload constraints, we cannot consider incomplete applications. Please make sure your application is complete by the 16th December 2021.



Queries on the project can be directed to the project supervisor, Silvia Paracchini


Queries on the application process can be directed to Rachel Horn (

Please refer to UKRI website and Annex B of the UKRI Training Grant Terms and Conditions