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Co-design of a gamified, attention-based intervention for chronic pain and chronic dizziness

Start date

1st October 2023


1 LISS-DTP CASE PhD studentship, 1+3/+3, full-time, Department of Psychology, IoPPN


Chronic pain, affecting almost 28 million UK adults (NICE,2021) and causing moderate-to-severe disability for almost 8 million of these (Fayaz et al, 2016), is a well-documented and well-studied public health concern. Chronic dizziness is less documented or studied, yet a UK population-based study found that 4% of all patients registered with a general practitioner experience chronic dizziness, and most are incapacitated by their symptoms (Nazareth et al, 1999).On the surface chronic pain and chronic dizziness may appear to be entirely distinct conditions. Yet, in both conditions the chronic symptoms are not well explained by injuries or damage to bodily tissue. Instead, new research indicates that a core brain-based mechanism underlies both conditions: somatosensory hypervigilance.

Somatosensory hypervigilance is characterized by the tendency to pay heightened attention towards certain bodily sensations and being unable to disengage from those sensations. This can alter the way that these sensory signals are processed, meaning that innocuous sensory input is misinterpreted by the brain to indicate the presence of a threat (e.g., pain, dizziness) (Eccleston, 2015). Three decades of research on chronic pain, including by the Primary Supervisor, has shown that somatosensory hypervigilance towards painful and sub-painful sensation scan maintain and exacerbate chronic pain. This has been observed behaviourally and at the level of the brain. In support of theoretical models (Popkirov et al., 2018), new research conducted by the Secondary Supervisor similarly suggests that somatosensory hypervigilance (but towards sensations associated with balance rather than pain) may also underpin chronic dizziness. Finding that a similar mechanism underpins both conditions brings an exciting opportunity: drawing from established research on chronic pain could rapidly advance our understanding of chronic dizziness. Likewise, emerging research on chronic dizziness could bring undiscovered insights into chronic pain.

This PhD project will leverage this opportunity by bringing together adults with chronic pain and adults with chronic dizziness for the first time, to conduct experimental research to study shared mechanisms across the conditions and to co-design a somatosensory hypervigilance intervention, with the aim of improving symptoms and quality of life. The PhD will thus include methodological training in experimental psychology, behavioural neuroscience, and mixed-methods research for behavioural intervention development.

In the experimental study, the student will have the option to use behavioural and neuroscience (e.g., EEG) methods to capture somatosensory hypervigilance and to examine how this relates to symptom perception and quality of life in adults with chronic pain and adults with chronic dizziness. This experimental study can also integrate cutting-edge methods to capture interoception (i.e., the perception of internal bodily states) in both clinical populations, an emerging and promising area of behavioural science research.

The somatosensory hypervigilance intervention project is a mixed-methods project that will begin with the student interviewing patients with chronic pain and patients with chronic dizziness, and clinicians treating these conditions (physicians, psychologists, physiotherapists) to capture initial feedback on which intervention parameters are relevant and acceptable for both conditions. These findings will be used to inform a co-designed somatosensory hypervigilance intervention that will be piloted in two samples of adults with chronic pain (sample 1) or chronic dizziness (sample 2) and evaluated using a mixed-method approach.

This project is in partnership with a health technology start-up company that has developed a prototype of the gamified, home-based somatosensory hypervigilance intervention that has shown promise in pilot studies of adults with chronic pain. Throughout the PhD training, the student will also receive training from the start-up company on health technology, building academic-industry partnerships, and translating medical and behavioural research into clinical products.

Of note, this PhD funding can be offered either 3 years of funding for a student ready to start the PhD straight away, or as 4 years of funding for a student who would benefit from first completing the 1-year MSc Health Psychology. 


Dr Lauren Heathcote, KCL (1st supervisor) and Dr Toby Ellmers, Imperial (2nd supervisor)

Entry requirements

Applicants should have (or be expected to obtain) a Bachelors degree with 2:1 honours (or Overseas equivalent). A 2:2 degree may be considered only where applicants also offer a Masters with Merit.

Award types and eligibility

The Doctoral Studentship award from the ESRC will cover:

  • The full UKRI Home Tuition Fee (£4,596 per annum 2022 - 23) for the duration of the award at the student’s host institution. 

To be treated as a Home student, candidates must meet one of the following criteria:

 - A UK national (meeting residency requirements)

 - Settled status

 - Pre-settled status (meeting residency requirements)

 - Indefinite leave to remain or enter

  • A stipend / maintenance allowance valued at £19,688 per annum (2022-23) for full-time doctoral programmes. Please note that stipends are tax-free.
  • Up to 30% of students who apply for LISS-DTP funding can receive an International Doctoral Scholar Award (funded by the Centre for Doctoral Studies) which fully funds the difference between the UKRI Home Tuition Fee and International Fee. 

During the course of the award the student will have regular opportunities to apply to the DTP for additional funding to support the costs of research training and development and overseas institutional visits (OIVs), among other options. ESRC funds for these activities must be pooled for all students and allocated based on budgetary considerations and the demonstrated need and value of the funding for an individual student’s project.  Please see the following LISS DTP webpage for further details on the regulations and the benefits of a LISS studentship    

Further information

About the IoPPN (

Studying at the IoPPN (

MSc Health Psychology at the IoPPN

Research degrees at the IoPPN (link to

LISS DTP Programme

LISS DTP – Link to Project

How to apply

Applicants must complete and submit an online admissions application, via the admissions portal by midnight (23:59 GMT), Sunday 12th March 2023.

On the ‘Choosing a programme’ page, please select Psychology Academic Research MPhil/PhD (Full-time).

In your application, you will be asked to include:

  • Academic Transcripts – where applicable, academic transcripts must be submitted with the online admissions application
  • Details of your qualifications (you will need to attach copies)
  • Details of previous employment - please include your CV
  • A personal statement describing your interests and why you wish to apply for this project. Please include this as an attachment rather than using the text box.
  • Academic References – all admissions applications require one supporting reference. If the applicant is relying on thier referees to submit a reference directly to the College after they have submitted thier admissions application, then the applicant must ensure that (1) their chosen referee is made aware of the funding deadline (i.e. 7 days from application deadline) and (2) that the reference needs to be sent from an institutional email address.
  • A copy of the LISS CASE application form. You should also complete the LISS-DTP equal opportunities monitoring form: LISS DTP Diversity Monitoring for CASE Candidates 2023 Entry ( 

In the Funding section, please tick box 5 and include the following reference: LH-HPysch-LISS-23

Please note there is no need to complete the Research Proposal section in your application as the project has already been set.

You are welcome to email Dr. Lauren Heathcote ( for more information regarding the project and studentship.

If you have any queries regarding the application process, please contact the Education support team at

References must be received by the deadline for the applicant to be eligible.

Only shortlisted applicants will be contacted.

Closing date

12th March 2023 (23:59 GMT)




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