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Dr Olivia Hamilton gains PhD

Congratulations to Dr Olivia Hamilton who recently successfully defended her PhD thesis which aimed to advance current understanding of the cognitive changes associated with sporadic cerebral small vessel disease.

Dr Olivia Hamilton
Dr Olivia Hamilton

Dr Olivia Hamilton has successfully defended her PhD thesis, titled “Sporadic Cerebral Small Vessel Disease & Cognitive Abilities”.

Olivia was a student on the Wellcome Trust 4-year PhD in Translational Neuroscience at the University of Edinburgh, funded by the College of Medicine & Veterinary Medicine.

Supervised by Professor Joanna Wardlaw Professor Ian Deary, Olivia's thesis aimed to advance current understanding of the cognitive changes associated with sporadic cerebral small vessel disease (SVD), an age-related disease of the brain’s micro vessels, which causes around 20% of all strokes & contributes to all major dementias.

Results of Olivia’s first PhD sub-study, a systematic review & meta-analysis of published literature, highlighted that SVD is associated with deficits in all major domains of cognitive ability, not just in executive function & processing speed, as is commonly thought (Cognitive impairment in sporadic cerebral small vessel disease: A systematic review & meta-analysis).

The second & third studies of Olivia’s thesis explored associations between the radiological burden SVD (i.e. considering multiple radiological markers of SVD together) & cognitive changes in the Lothian Birth Cohorts 1936, a cohort of relatively healthy older adults living in Edinburgh & the Lothians (Associations between total MRI-visible small vessel disease burden & domain-specific cognitive abilities in a community-dwelling older-age cohort & Cerebral small vessel disease burden & longitudinal cognitive decline from age 73 to 82: the Lothian Birth Cohort 1936). These studies highlighted that SVD burden is associated with declines in specific domains of cognitive ability (processing speed, verbal memory & visuospatial ability), likely due to SVD’s overarching association with declining general cognitive ability.

Taken together, these findings of Olivia's thesis support the notion of SVD as a diffuse, whole-brain disease, affecting the widespread white matter tract networks that support our cognitive abilities. The findings also have implications for the accurate measurement of SVD-related cognitive changes, both in the clinic & in research (especially in clinical trials), & underscore the importance of considering multiple radiological markers of the disease when assessing disease burden.


We asked Olivia how she felt about gaining her PhD.

I feel very lucky to have spent the last four years learning about what happens to our brains as we get older. The PhD has been a challenging & absorbing experience & I’m grateful to my supervisors Joanna Wardlaw & Ian Deary & to their research teams at the Centre for Clinical Brain Sciences & at The Lothian Birth Cohorts, who have supported me & helped me to develop as a scientist.

I’ve also really enjoyed being part of the Edinburgh Neuroscience community & am happy that I’ll be just down the road in my next role in Glasgow.

Olivia will soon be starting work as a Research Associate at the MRC/CSO Social & Public Health Sciences Unit, contributing to their research on health inequalities & the social determinants of health.


Article adapted from Edinburgh Imaging website.

Article link


Related links 

Dr Olivia Hamilton research profile

Dr Olivia Hamilton list of publications (Pubmed)

PhD opportunities at the Row Fogo Centre for Research into Ageing and the Brain