PhD vacancy: "Replacing sugar with the natural sweetener erythritol as an alternative for artificial sweeteners: rewarding and satiating without calories?"

03 April 2020

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For more information please contact Mrs. Nathalie Weltens, tel.: +32 16 37 74 86, mail: or Prof. dr. Lukas Van Oudenhove, tel.: +32 16 33 01 47, mail:

You can apply for this job no later than May 17, 2020 via the online application tool

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The Laboratory for Brain-Gut Axis Studies (LaBGAS) is situated at KU Leuven, Belgium – a top-ranked university in the heart of Europe (30 min to Brussels, 2 hours to London, Paris and Amsterdam). Our internationally oriented and well-recognized team has established an innovative research line that integrates biochemical techniques to study neurohumoral gut-brain signaling mechanisms with advanced neuroimaging techniques.

(including fMRI, radioligand PET and combined PET/MR imaging). This, to unravel how gastrointestinal hormones, nutrients and microbiota-related signals impact on cognitive and affective processes by interfering with their underlying neural mechanisms at the level of the brain.

Collaborative, interdisciplinary research is performed by a network of experienced researchers, clinicians and students who are fascinated by brain-gut axis research in both health and disease.We have also established a productive network of collaborative research within KU Leuven and abroad, and this project specifically results from a close collaboration with the Metabolic Research group at St. Clara Research Ltd./University of Basel who are specialized in studying hunger/satiety hormone responses to the administration of various sugars and non-caloric sweeteners as well as their effects on gastric emptying, appetite-related sensations, food intake and brain functioning.

The present PhD project is part of the FWO (Research Foundation Flanders)-sponsored “Lead Agency Procedure” program with the SNSF (Swiss National Science Foundation) entitled “Replacing sugar with the natural sweetener erythritol as an alternative for artificial sweeteners: satiating and rewarding without calories?”, granted to Prof. Van Oudenhove (KU Leuven), Dr. Meyer-Gerspach and Dr. Wölnerhanssen (both St. Clara Research Ltd./University of Basel).Website unit


Sweet is an innately attractive and rewarding taste to humans because of the caloric value of carbohydrates, but the sharp rise sugar consumption is an important contributor to the dramatic globalrise in obesity and associated metabolic disorders, especially type 2 diabetes mellitus. Therefore, replacing sugar with artificial non-caloric sweeteners (NCS) has been widely adopted as a strategy to reduce caloric intake and body weight. However, despite a considerable increase in their consumption, the beneficial effects of substituting sugar with NCS on short- and long-term energy balance remain controversial. This may be explained by the fact that NCS may lack the satiating and rewarding properties of sugar because of their inability to influence the release of hunger/satiety hormones (in addition to their lack of calories). The non-caloric natural sweetener erythritol may be an ideal alternative substitute for sugar, since we recently showed that it increases satiety hormone levels. However, its effects on appetite, satiation, and satiety,as well as the brain mechanisms governing them have not been studied systematically.

The major aim of the present bilateral PhD project of KU Leuven and St. Clara Research Ltd./University of Basel is to study the effects of replacing sugar with erythritol on food intake regulation in healthy humans, by identifying the brain mechanisms and (hormonal) gut-brain communication underlying these effects. This translates into 3 research objectives:

Investigate the effect of intragastric administration on (dopaminergic) homeostatic and reward system responses in the brain using simultaneous PET/MR imaging. Investigate the brain responses to oral administration and the modulatory effect of cognitions about caloric content using fMRI. Investigate the effect of oral pre-loads on brain responses to anticipatory (visual) and consummatory (gustatory) food reward stimuli using fMRI.

  • We are looking for an enthusiastic and highly motivated candidate with Master degree; a Medical degree or Master Degree in Biomedical, Behavioral, or Neurosciences are preferred.
  • Candidates have a genuine interest in the interaction between neural, psychological and bodily processes as well as in neurosciences, particularly functional brain imaging
  • Besides excellent organizational and experimental research skills, the candidate should possess excellent interpersonal skills and communication skills in English language, both verbally as well as in academic writing.
  • Besides a strong motivation to work with subjects in a research context, candidates should also have a strong interest in data analysis. Experience with Matlab, SPM, SAS and/or R are an asset but not a prerequisite.
  • PhD in Biomedical Sciences
  • Estimated net salary per month: ca. EUR 2000,- (depending on qualification, age, and family situation)
  • Employment basis: temporary for a specified period
  • Duration of contract: 4 years (based on a successful intermediate evaluation after 1 year)
  • As a partner of the Leuven International Doctoral School Biomedical Sciences and YouReCa, we offer you the opportunity to take part in a broad spectrum of activities that are related to training, education and career development.