The Bloomsbury Colleges | PhD Studentships | Studentships 2020 | Educational attainment, inflammation and depression: Shared genetic aetiology or causal pathway?
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Educational Attainment, Inflammation and Depression: Shared Genetic Aetiology or Causal Pathway?

Principal supervisor: Dr Steven Papachristou (UCL Institute of Education)

Co-Supervisor: Dr Emma Meaburn (Birkbeck) and Professor Eirini Flouri (UCL Institute of Education)

Award includes tuition fees and a stipend of £17,009 including London Weighting (at 2019/20 rates, so slightly higher for 2020 entry)

100% FTE for 3 years, from September 2020.

Project Description:

According to the World Health Organisation (2018) depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide and a major contributor to the overall global burden of disease. One of the main risk factors consistently associated with depression progression is low educational attainment (EA), linked to family and social circumstances but also genetic factors. EA is also a significant predictor of inflammation, which in turn, plays a key role in the pathogenesis of depression via stress and other biological pathways, for example by reducing the availability of serotonin and other neurotransmitters in the brain. EA and inflammatory markers have been shown to have significant inverse genetic correlations, while twin studies additionally show that genes promoting inflammation are involved in the pathogenesis of depression. Taken together, these findings indicate either that EA, inflammation and depression are correlated for genetic reasons or that there are direct causal links between EA and inflammation with depression, but also between inflammation and depression. It is also likely that inflammation acts as an –at least partial- mediator for the relationship between EA and depression.


This PhD project has 3 main objectives. First, to examine if EA is causally related to inflammation and depression. Second, to investigate if inflammation is causally related to depression. Third, should the first 2 objectives yield positive findings, it will examine if inflammation acts as a mediator of the relationship between EA and depression.


To test for the shared genetic basis and causal links between EA, inflammation and depression, you will use data derived from Understanding Society (US; The US is an annual longitudinal study of around 40,000 households for whom data on depression (measured annually using the General Health Questionnaire-12), EA (highest level of education attained), blood inflammatory markers (C-reactive protein and fibrinogen), and genome-wide genetic data are available.  You will download US datasets and apply Mendelian Randomisation (MR) approaches, and emerging multivariate statistical modelling techniques (such as genomic-SEM) and work as part of a multidisciplinary team to interpret your findings. You will gain experience in epidemiology, genetics, data science, and psychology and join a thriving collaborative research group.


The findings of this project can offer crucial information for education policy. According to the United Nations Development Programme reports, the average number of years of education received by people aged 25 and older in the UK in 2013 was lower compared to that in many other countries –mainly for males. If the proposed study finds evidence for an associative link between EA and inflammation or depression due to shared genetic causes, then further investigations into the explanation of these relationships will be warranted. If, however, the proposed study finds evidence supporting causal links, then it will provide grounds for promoting education policy encouraging students to pursue higher education opportunities which will, in turn, alleviate some of the burden associated with disease. Finally, if the evidence suggests a causal relationship between inflammation and depression, or that the effects of EA on depression are mediated by inflammation, new windows for interventions promoting healthier lifestyles will emerge.

Candidate Requirements

Graduates with a good first degree and/or Master’s degree in social or medical statistics, epidemiology, quantitative biology, bioinformatics, medicine (particularly psychiatry), education, psychology or other relevant social science with an interest and aptitude for quantitative methods and statistical modelling are encouraged to apply. You should be comfortable with managing large data files and with writing code in a statistical (e.g., Stata, RStudio) or scripting (e.g., Python) language.

The project will require advanced statistical analysis skills (e.g., experience in linear modelling, structural equation modelling, and/or MR).

Subject Areas/Keywords:

Key References:

Cowen, P. J., & Browning, M. (2015). What has serotonin to do with depression?. World Psychiatry, 14(2), 158.

Lee, J. J., Wedow, R., Okbay, A., Kong, E., Maghzian, O., Zacher, M., ... & Fontana, M. A. (2018). Gene discovery and polygenic prediction from a 1.1-million-person GWAS of educational attainment. Nature genetics, 50(8), 1112.

Ligthart, S., Vaez, A., Võsa, U., Stathopoulou, M. G., De Vries, P. S., Prins, B. P., ... & Wu, Y. (2018). Genome analyses of> 200,000 individuals identify 58 loci for chronic inflammation and highlight pathways that link inflammation and complex disorders. The American Journal of Human Genetics, 103(5), 691-706.

Rimfeld, K., Malanchini, M., Krapohl, E., Hannigan, L. J., Dale, P. S., & Plomin, R. (2018). The stability of educational achievement across school years is largely explained by genetic factors. NPJ Science of Learning, 3, 16.

Vaccarino, V., Brennan, M. L., Miller, A. H., Bremner, J. D., Ritchie, J. C., Lindau, F., ... & Jawed, F. (2008). Association of major depressive disorder with serum myeloperoxidase and other markers of inflammation: a twin study. Biological Psychiatry, 64(6), 476-483.

Further details about the project may be obtained from:

Principal Supervisor: Dr Steven Papachristou,

Co-Supervisor: Dr Emma Meaburn,

Co-Supervisor: Professor Eirini Flouri,

Further information about PhDs at UCL Institute of Education and Birkbeck, University of London is available from:

Application forms and details about how to apply are available from:


The required supporting documentation is as follows:

  • A personal statement indicating how your qualifications, experience and research interests make you a suitable candidate for your chosen scholarship.
  • Covering letter and CV
  • A piece of your own written work, such as an essay, dissertation or article.
  • Transcripts of your undergraduate and (where applicable) postgraduate qualifications
  • Two confidential references

Closing date for applications is: