HDR Scholarship - Quantifying the role of epigenetic factors in neurocognitive outcomes: a twin study

Applications now open. A PhD scholarship is available to initiate and conduct research on the topic 'Quantifying the role of epigenetic factors in neurocognitive outcomes: a twin study'.

Project Supervisor

Associate Supervisor


Geelong Waurn Ponds Campus

Research topic

We have limited knowledge of the interactions among genetic and environmental processes that give rise to human neurocognitive outcomes including cognition, behaviour, and brain structure and function. It is paramount to understand these interactions because such outcomes are strong predictors of academic attainment, adult socioeconomic status, and mental and physical health across the lifespan.

Recent research has demonstrated that certain environmental experiences, especially those encountered in utero, leave a biological legacy on epigenetics (molecular factors above the DNA sequence that mediate gene expression), and that such a legacy can predispose to chronic disease. Recent research in this field has identified genes or groups of genes at which epigenetic state at birth is associated with later neurocognitive outcomes. Such associations lay solid foundations for development of epigenetic biomarkers at birth that could be used to predict neurocognitive outcomes. Twin studies are essential for enabling the partitioning of phenotypic variance into genetic, shared (e.g. family) and non-shared (i.e. specific to the individual) environmental components.

We aim to quantify the associations between prenatal environment, genome-wide DNA methylation in neonatal cheek swab samples, and cognition, behaviour, and sophisticated measures of brain structure and function in a large cohort of typically developing 11-year-old twins. The project brings together expertise in genome-wide epigenetic analysis, paediatric neuroimaging, cognition and behaviour, and twin to focus to study a twin birth cohort, on which we have detailed prenatal data and perinatal bio samples.

Project aim

The broad aim of this project is to identify epigenetic correlates of neurocognitive outcomes. Using a within-pair twin model, this project will quantify the associations between DNA methylation state in buccal samples at birth and i) cognitive and behavioural functioning, and ii) brain structure and function at age eleven years. We hypothesise that within-pair differences in genomic regions that regulate genes involved in neurodevelopment and inflammation will be strongly associated with neurocognitive outcomes. We also hypothesise that methylation level at a subset of genes will enable us to define a continuously valued risk score for each outcome, and that ‘methylation age’, a marker of developmental maturity, will associate with neurocognitive outcomes. The project will also aim to determine the developmental stability of epigenetic associations with neurocognitive outcomes at 18 months and six years of age and identify whether DNA methylation risk scores measured are associated at birth associate with specific intrauterine factors that differ within twin pairs.

This project mainly involves bioinformatic analysis and may include DNA extraction. The student will start by focusing on the epigenetic data, later integrating outcome and/or exposure variables.  Appropriate training will be provided by researchers at Deakin University and the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute.

Important dates

Applications close 5pm, Thursday 25th February 2021


This scholarship is available over 3 years.

  • Stipend of $28,092 per annum tax exempt (2020 rate)
  • Relocation allowance of $500-1500 (for single to family) for students moving from interstate or overseas
  • International students only:  Tuition fees offset for the duration of 4 years. Single Overseas Student Health Cover policy for the duration of the student visa.

Eligibility criteria

To be eligible you must:

  • be either a domestic or international candidate currently residing in Australia (domestic includes candidates with Australian citizenship, Australian Permanent Residency or new Zealand Citizenship).
  • meet Deakin's PhD entry requirements
  • be enrolling full time and hold an honours degree (first class) or an equivalent standard master's degree with a substantial research component.

Please refer to the research degree entry pathways page for further information.

Additional desirable criteria include:

  • lab-based or analytical backgrounds

How to apply

Learn more about submitting a successful application on the How to apply page.


Contact us

For more information about this scholarship, please contact Associate Professor Jeffrey Craig

Associate Professor Jeffrey Craig
Associate Professor
Email Jeffrey Craig
+61 3 522 78655