Early Stage Researcher, Neurobiology of Disease – University of Eastern Finland


This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement No 101034307.

New biomarkers for mental health

Doctoral Programme of Molecular Medicine (DPMM)

Katja Kanninen, primary supervisor
Izaque de Sousa Maciel, postdoc in the Kanninen research group
Päivi Eriksson
Noora Puhakka


A.I. Virtanen Institute for Molecular Sciences, Faculty of Health Sciences

The goal of the ‘Neurobiology of Disease’ research group is to provide in-depth understanding of the cellular and molecular events that occur in brain disorders. By using human biosamples we aim to discover biomarkers for mental health dysfunction in order to provide novel solutions for patient benefit. Biomarker discovery is facilitated by using highly sophisticated, integrative omics approaches. Validation and detailed testing is carried out in human cells, and animal disease models. We are increasingly interested in deciphering how environmental factors shape the brain and affect mental health.

This research project needs the participation of people with passion for excellence in research, innovation, and societal impact. We are looking for candidates who seek to contribute to brain health innovation research with a keen eye on the application of research knowledge to the problems and challenges of society and industry. Ideal candidates want to open their minds to intersecting and complementary fields of science, seeking a multi/interdisciplinary approach in research. The candidates should have a desire to approach the brain health industry and other organizations that will benefit from science when developing services, products, and processes.

The academic profile of the candidate should be in the neuroscience or biomedicine, with the idea of complementing this background throughout PhD studies. Overall, the candidate must be willing to combine complementary areas of knowledge in innovation management, data sciences, social sciences, applied physics and/or law to complete the thesis project. Moreover, the candidate is required to have good methodological skills, especially in longitudinal analyses. As far as soft skills are concerned, we welcome candidates with a proactive, collaborative attitude, and who are enthusiastic about building, creating, and working in teams. Excellent candidates desire to participate in activities concerning multi- and interdisciplinary ageing research, and are willing to spend some time abroad with our international partners and outside the university in our partner institutions.

We are looking for a motivated candidate to work on a highly novel project that identifies, validates and characterizes new omic biomarkers for childhood and adolescence mental illness using human-based biosamples and animal models of neuropsychiatric disorders. You will be working with biosamples and omics data from children and adolescents that are at high risk of a mental health disorder, or that already have a diagnosis. If you wish, you may also join our animal studies on neuropsychiatric disease. You will join a very active and multidisciplinary, European-wide team of scientists (funded by Horizon 2020, project Equal-Life) studying various aspects of the exposome in relation to mental health. The project aims to tackle issues related to commercialization of novel biomarkers throughout the project. We expect you to have an inquisitive attitude and the ability to work in a highly dynamic, interdisciplinary team. A suitable background in neuroscience, omics approaches, bioinformatics or related fields are highly appreciated.

Neuroscience, biomarkers, mental health, innovation, bioinformatics

Adolescence is a crucial period for developing and maintaining social and emotional habits important for mental well-being. Some adolescents are at greater risk of mental health conditions due to their living conditions, lifestyle, genetic factors, and the environment they are exposed to. The goal of this research is to demonstrate proof of concept in being able to utilize newly discovered biomarkers for the early detection and risk stratification of mental dysfunction, especially targeting adolescents. This project will determine the utility and validity of novel biomarkers discovered by multiomic approaches for early identification of at-risk individuals and possible preventative measures. Additional functional data on the biomarkers will be generated with human biosamples and highly translational research models. The project also combines the biomarkers data on the living conditions of the adolescents. A key aspect of this project is to determine if the biomarkers have utility for risk prediction and commercialization potential. This project strives to meet the challenging outstanding medical need of early identification of mental health dysfunction in adolescence.

The candidate can also suggest their own topic or modify this topic in their motivation letter.


Publications related to the PhD topic

  • Lampinen R, Feroze M, Avesani S, Örd T, Penttilä E, Lehtola J-M, Saari T, Hannonen S, Saveleva L, Kaartinen E, Fernandes Acosta F, Cruz-Haces M, Löppönen H, Mackay-Sim A, Malm T, Kaikkonen-Määttä M, Koivisto AM, White AR, Giugno R, Chew S, Kanninen KM. Disease specific alterations in the olfactory mucosa of patients with Alzheimer’s disease. doi: https://doi.org/10.1101/2020.11.24.395947.
  • Kanninen KM, Lampinen R, Rantanen LM, Odendaal L, Jalava P, Chew S, White AR. Olfactory cell cultures to investigate health effects of air pollution exposure: Implications for neurodegeneration. Neurochem Int. 2020 Jun;136:104729. doi: 10.1016/j.neuint.2020.104729. Epub 2020 Mar 19. PMID: 32201281.
  • Chew S, Lampinen R, Saveleva L, Korhonen P, Mikhailov N, Grubman A, Polo JM, Wilson T, Komppula M, Rönkkö T, Gu C, Mackay-Sim A, Malm T, White AR, Jalava P, Kanninen KM. Urban air particulate matter induces mitochondrial dysfunction in human olfactory mucosal cells. Part Fibre Toxicol. 2020 Jun 1;17(1):18. doi: 10.1186/s12989-020-00352-4. PMID: 32487172; PMCID: PMC7268298.
  • Das Gupta S, Ciszek R, Heiskanen M, Lapinlampi N, Kukkonen J, Leinonen V, Puhakka N, Pitkänen A. Plasma miR-9-3p and miR-136-3p as Potential Novel Diagnostic Biomarkers for Experimental and Human Mild Traumatic Brain Injury. Int J Mol Sci. 2021 Feb 4;22(4):1563. doi: 10.3390/ijms22041563. PMID: 33557217; PMCID: PMC7913923.
  • Lehtimäki, H., Helén, I., Snell, K., Eriksson, P., & Montonen, T. (2019). Sustainable Value Creation in the Commercialization of Innovation: The Case of Auria Biobank. International Journal of Entrepreneurship and Innovation Management¸23(5), 451-465.

Research projects related to the PhD topic

This PhD research topic covers the following complementary areas of knowledge: basic neuroscience, mental health, biomarker discovery, neuroinnovation, bioinformatics

The PhD project will be co-supervised by a team of 3 scientists with expertise in basic neuroscience, biomarker discovery, neuroinnovation and bioinformatics.

To advance multi/interdisciplinary collaboration, three Summer Schools will be organised jointly by the Neuro-Innovation supervisors and non-academic partners. In these, multi-/interdisciplinarity and intersectoral exchange will be implemented via hands-on interaction between PhD students, supervisors, partners and other stakeholders.

  • Neuro-ethics and patient rights, 3 ECTS credits. Research ethics, patient rights, data security.
  • Neuro-data Hackathon, 3 ECST credits. Open and big data.
  • Neuro-Innovation Living Lab, 3 ECST credits. Entrepreneurial processes and commercialisation paths.

Virtual Platform for multi/interdisciplinary interaction will connect all PhD students in this programme.

The academic partner organizations (see the Neuro-Innovation webpage) will collaborate closely with us in PhD training and students are strongly encouraged to include a secondment and visits with these partners in their studies. During shorter visits (1-4 weeks), you will learn more about research and methods and build international networks. During secondments, you will work on their research project under the supervision of the co-supervisor from the hosting organisation and utilise their infrastructure. You can also attend courses, seminars, and other events in the host organisations.

The PhD candidate has the opportunity to visit one or two project partners for secondments, for example the University of Verona and BioTalentum Ltd, for a period that will be jointly agreed. This will enable the candidate to become familiar with the state-of-the-art methodologies in human biosampling and bioinformatics and gain knowledge in working in industrial settings.


The Societal Impact Board of this PhD programme with 14 intersectoral partners will collaborate closely with us in PhD training, for instance on the following activities:

  • Neuro-Innovation Talent Hub: monthly gathering with special guests (e.g., researchers, professionals, business experts, stakeholders) and discussions about research topics and career prospects.
  • Neuro-Innovation Boot Camp: yearly competition concerning the utilisation of research results.

There is a particularly close collaborative relationship planned with BioTalentum Ltd as well as University of Verona in the proposed topic.

Close collaboration with clinicians, psychologists, bioinformaticians and innovation experts during the doctoral studies is highly recommended.

Apply the position

High quality research and publications of excellence are a way to solve scientific and societal problems and challenges. This vision is shared by the collaborating partners in this doctoral program, and involvement with various stakeholders will allow the pursuit of a goal with potential for brain health innovation. The University of Eastern Finland pursues societal impact that goes beyond academia focusing on the transformation of society, leading to fairer and more diverse societies, where inclusive social development and welfare are enhanced.

The objective of the proposed research is to advance our understanding of mechanisms of mental health dysfunction and discover and validate biomarkers to serve both diagnostic and potential therapeutic purposes. In the long run, the data from this study can be used to categorize individuals to risk groups, aid in early detection of potential mental health problems, leading to lowering of the disease burden.

The UEF policy on gender equality and equal opportunities is based on Finnish legislation and the values of the university. The goal of gender equality and equal opportunities at the university is to identify and prevent expressions, structures and functions that maintain or increase inequality and to promote gender equality and equal opportunities at all levels. The university has a Gender Equality and Equal Opportunities Programme, which describes the measures intended to implement and promote gender equality and equal opportunities among staff and students. The university takes an active approach to promoting equal opportunities and acting against discrimination.

The University of Eastern Finland is the most multidisciplinary university in Finland. We are home to 15,500 students and 2,700 staff members. Our research is ranked among the best in the world in several fields (inc. forest sciences). We generate research-based knowledge and make it openly accessible for the benefit of all. UEF stands for action with impact that is relevant today and tomorrow. To learn more about our university please visit our website at www.uef.fi/en.