The eye as a window to the brain: tackling neurodegenerative disorders

This joint PhD project will be based at The University of Melbourne with a minimum 12 month stay at KU Leuven

Project description
A major clinical challenge in dementia care is the accurate and timely detection of the disease. Reliance on clinical features alone is problematic due to the overlap between dementia syndromes. Furthermore, existing tests, such as cerebrospinal fluid analysis and positron emission tomography (PET), are invasive, costly and not widely available.

Our group is one of the first in the world to utilize non-invasive hyperspectral retinal imaging and machine-learning image analysis methods to distinguish people with early Alzheimer’s disease from matched controls, an approach that is strongly correlated with the reference standard of brain PET imaging for amyloid-beta.

The doctoral student will seek to extend this innovation by examining whether retinal imaging can be used to detect other neuropathological processes, such as the accumulation of phosphorylated tau, alpha synuclein or TDP-43, that contribute to dementia. Delineation of the key neuropathological processes that underlie dementia at the level of the individual would transform diagnostic precision and serve as the foundation of personalized dementia care. The student will lead clinical imaging studies and learn state-of-the-art image analysis methods.

In Leuven they will have the opportunity to perform a validation clinical imaging study and undertake focused pre-clinical research to identify the basis of the identified biomarkers. This project draws on the collective strengths of the Melbourne and Leuven groups as global leaders in the discovery and clinical validation of retinal imaging biomarkers of neurodegenerative diseases.

The project will be complemented by the KU Leuven based project and the collaboration will ensure a successful completion of the project.


  • Undergraduate/postgraduate degree in medicine, optometry, orthoptics, science, biomedicine, biomedical engineering or related disciplines
  • Evidence of scholarly excellence as evidenced by academic performance, awards, scholarships or bursaries
    High level verbal and written communication skills


  • Proficiency in computer programming, with a particular emphasis on R or Python
  • Proficiency in biostatistics/statistical methods
  • Proficiency in mathematics
  • Experience or interest in engineering
  • Prior research experience (laboratory or clinical)
  • Interest in clinical research.

This position is full time. The ideal applicant will be highly motivated and capable of working independently and as part of a dynamic team comprised of clinician-scientists, engineers, data scientists and laboratory researchers. This highly prestigious scholarship will involve periods of research in Melbourne and in Belgium. Accordingly, the candidate needs to be adaptable and adventurous with good interpersonal skills.

Supervision team:

Principal Investigators (PIs)

Associate Professor Peter van Wijngaarden (The University of Melbourne)
Professor Ingeborg Stalmans (KU Leuven)

Co-Principal Investigators (co-PIs)

Dr Xavier Hadoux (The University of Melbourne)
Dr Lies De Groef (KU Leuven)