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Molecular code of learning and neural circuit plasticity (PhD project)

Molecular code of learning and neural circuit plasticity (PhD project)

The research group of Neural Circuit Plasticity and Neuromodulation has a vacancy for a PhD position. Our research addresses fundamental questions on how nervous systems process information and generate flexible behaviours in a dynamic environment. Understanding how the brain learns and adjusts choices based on experience requires detailed insights into the underlying mechanisms, ultimately at the level of molecules and cells. We are investigating these questions in the tractable model organism Caenorhabditis elegans. It has a compact and well-defined nervous system in which individual neuron types can be selectively manipulated with an exquisite genetic toolkit. Our research group is part of the Biology Department at KU Leuven, located on a beautiful campus in historic Leuven.

Animal brains are wired according to a series of remarkable genetic programs that have evolved over millions of years. Much of our behaviour, however, is the product of experiences that happen to us on much shorter timescales. The ability of the nervous system to properly respond to aversive stimuli is crucial for animal well-being and survival. This PhD project aims to uncover fundamental insights into the molecular and neuronal mechanisms that anchor aversive experiences in memory. We previously found that neuropeptides, small regulatory proteins, serve as key messengers in neural circuits to adapt their behavioural output based on previous experience. In this project, we will combine recently developed tools for analysing gene expression specifically in neurons of memory circuits, to identify memory genes involved in neuropeptide control, and will dissect how these genes contribute to generating or forgetting aversive memories. Biochemical and genetic methods, such as CRISPR and
transgenic tools, will be used to characterise the underlying molecular pathways, while effects at the circuit level can be uncovered by in vivo calcium imaging of neuronal activity and optogenetics. These techniques will be combined to investigate the molecular basis of experience-based learning and decision-making.

A Master degree in Biology, Biochemistry, Biomedical Sciences, Bio-engineering or equivalent (obtained prior to 02/01/2020) is a must. You have a good grasp of molecular biology, neurobiology and genetics.

Applicants must also have a competitive profile to apply for an FWO fellowship (see selection criteria via

In addition, you:

* are an autonomous, sociable colleague
* can clearly communicate your research (results) to other lab members and research partners
* have excellent research skills and a strong interest in molecular genetic methods
* are proficient in English
* are willing to supervise Bachelor and Master students
* have (an interest in learning) basic bioinformatics and statistical analysis skills
* have the focus and abilities to work towards publishable units of scientific knowledge

We offer a full-time predoctoral position at the Laboratory of Neural Circuit Plasticity and Neuromodulation (Prof. Isabel Beets), KU Leuven, Belgium. You will work in a stimulating research environment and contribute to the team spirit of our young research group consisting of several PhD students, technicians and postdocs.

The initial 1-year contract includes an intended extension to fund a 4-year PhD project. For this, good evaluation upon competitive fellowship applications (FWO ranking or good score for relevant others, if applicable) is a prerequisite.

The salary will be in accordance with the University salary scales for doctoral researchers.

KU Leuven is one of Europe's top universities and is located in the vibrant city of Leuven, which has a strong international appeal. For more information on the University of Leuven visit


KU Leuven - Universiteit

Molecular code of learning and neural circuit plasticity (PhD project)

KU Leuven, Leuven
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