Dr Sarah L Astill

Dr Sarah L Astill


Sarah graduated with a First Class Honours degree in Physiology and Sport Science in July 2000, remaining at the University of Leeds, to undertake a PhD examining neuromotor control in children with movement difficulties. Sarah was employed as a teaching fellow at Leeds (2004-2006) before moving to the School of Health Sciences at the University of Southampton as a RCUK Postdoctoral Research Fellow (2006-2008), working in the Life Sciences Interface Research Group. Sarah rejoined the University of Leeds as a Lecturer in Motor Control in October 2008, and was promoted to Associate Professor in Motor Control in 2018.

Sarah is an expert in the neural and behavioural control of movement across the lifespan and in various clinical populations (cervical spinal cord inury; neurodevelopmental disorders) . Research in Sarah’s lab uses motion analysis, surface electromyography (sEMG) and non-invasive stimulation techniques (e.g.TMS, TCES) to elucidate a mechanistic account of how movements are controlled and learnt/re-learnt, paticularly when performing upper limb tasks. Her translational work informs the development of novel, evidence-based approaches to maintain the integrity or recovery of movement control, including using physical activity paradigms, task specific practice, and electrical stimulation to drive CNS plasticity and maximise functional capacity. Sarah has interest and expertise at designing community based programmes to increase phsyical activity in older people and in this work collaborates with multiple stakeholder groups acros the Yorkshire region (e.g. Leeds City Council).    

Sarah has held consequetive leadership roles during her academic career, contributing to School and Faculty strategy for over 10 years. Sarah has developed and led undergraduate and postgraduate programmes in the School of Biomedical Sciences in her role as Director of Student Education (2013-2017) and Programme Leader (2017-2022).  Most recently she was the Faculty of Biological Sciences Academic Lead for Student Experience and Opportunity (21-23), developing and implementing Faculty strategy on academic personal tutoring, employablity, and student success.                

Sarah is the co-lead for the University of Leeds’ Interdisciplinary Research Network Reimagine Ageing. This is a University research network that brings together disipline- specific experts to work together to create new solutions to the major societal challenge of ageing. The network has support from Leeds City Council, Leeds Public Health, Leeds Older People’s Forum, Leeds Academic Health Partnership and the Performance Ensemble with members of the executive advisory group representing each of these organisations. Our network is open to researchers nationwide, and has members from across the University of Leeds.   




  • Co-Lead Reimagine Ageing Interdisciplinary Research Network

Research interests

Current Funded Research

Using transcutaneous electrical stimulation to improve motor function 

Current research builds on my fundamental science that has elucidated mechanisms of control in (bimanual) reach to grasp actions in a variety of populations including older adults, children with developmental coordination disorder and hemiplegic cerebral palsy and adults with a cervical spinal cord injury. 

I am currently a PI of a ISRT funded project which has investigated the feasibility and initial efficacy of combining bimanual task practice with transcutaneous electrical stimulation (tces) on motor recovery in chronic spinal cord injury. Consistent with my other work we have taken a mixed methods approach, utilising transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), surface electromyography (sEMG), spinal stimulation, kinematics and clinical measures (e.g. GRASSP, SCIM-II) to identify the neurophysiological changes that accompany improvement in arm and hand function, in addition to semi structured interviews to capture any other associated changes. Alongside this project I have also led a piece of work investigating how TCES combined with motor imagery affects cortical and spinal plasticity and drives changes in motor function in adults with and without cSCI. We are now examining the use of TCES as an adjunct to bimanual task practice to improve arm and hand function in children with hemiplegic cerebral palsy.    

Dance On: Using a community led dance programme to increase physical activity and wellbeing in older people

I have an ongoing collaboration with One Dance UK, Yorkshire Dance and Darts as PI on a Sport England funded project, ‘Dance On’.  This research built on my previous work on ‘Dancing in Time’ to co-create, implement and evaluate how community dance programs might increase physical activity and wellbeing in older community dwelling women. Dance On is delivered across Leeds, Bradford and Yorkshire, and data shows physical activity and wellbeing increase and are maintained over a 12 month period (Britten et al., 2023).  We see these significant increases in adults, older adults (55-75 years) and the oldest old (85+ years).  Moreover we have shown that  Dance On is cost effective at preventing falls. A toolkit designed to help local authorities, and freelance artists etc to implement their own dance programme can be found here.  Ongoing research has used ripple effect mapping to understand the effect of Dance On on artists, and the contribution of Dance On makes to participants accessing other services. Dance on is also delivered in care homes, and the effectiveness of this is currently being investigated as part of the Get Doncaster Moving Stategy  

Other significant work

Development and Initial Efficacy of a Home Based Gait Trainer ater Spinal Cord Injury 

I am the PI of a 3 year funded project that is developing a gait trainer to be used in the home, principally for use by people living with a spinal cord injury (SCI). Ongoing rehabilitation of walking using ‘gold standard’ rehabilitation devices and paradigms (e.g. exoskeletons, BWSTT) are expensive, and not accessible to most people with a SCI. In this piece of work we will be working with a philanthropist to develop a low cost gait retrainer, and then testing its initial efficacy for recovery of walking function. We hope to test if and how use of this gait retrainer can be combined with stimulation paradigms to help recovery of walking. 

Physical Activity, Pain and Long Covid 

I am part of a multidisciplinary team that is investigating the time course and mechanistic underpinning of musculoskeletal pain in Long Covid. To date we have established physical activity patterns in people with long covid, and undertook a review of the clinical characteristcs of pain and possible underlying causes of new onset MSK pain in peopple with a diagnosis of long covid. The remainder of this work is a longitudinal study evaluating the time course of pain, it characteristics, and relationship to physical and mental health, in addition to cytokine profiles, and QST testing. 

Past Research

Multisensory Integration in Children with Developmental Coordination Disorder (Action Medical Research)

Dancing in Time (Leeds Public Health)   

Dance for health, well-being and empowerment of young people (Arts Council England)

<h4>Research projects</h4> <p>Any research projects I'm currently working on will be listed below. Our list of all <a href="https://biologicalsciences.leeds.ac.uk/dir/research-projects">research projects</a> allows you to view and search the full list of projects in the faculty.</p>


  • PhD Neuromotor Control in Children with Devlopmental Coordination Disorder
  • BSc (Hons) Physiology and Sport Science
  • FHEA

Student education

Throughout my time at Leeds, I have held numerous leadership roles, contributing to operational processes of the Faculty, and driving learning and teaching strategy across the School of Biomedical Sciences, and more broadly the entire Faculty of Biological Sciences. I was the assessment lead for Sport and Exercise Sciences between 2011-2013, and then Director for Student Education (DSE; 2013-2017). As DSE, I have developed and implemented University strategy at a faculty and school level as a member of the Faculty undergraduate and postgraduate taught student education committees (UGTSEC; FTSEC), and as cross faculty representative on taught student education committees  in both the Faculty of Arts and Humanities and Culture, and Medicine and Health. Most recently I was programme leader for Sport and Exercise Sciences  (2017-2022), and Faculty Academic Lead for Student Experience and Opportunity (2021-2023).  In the latter role, I was a member of FTSEC, and the Faculty’s Student Education Strategy group.   role I led on the implementation of the new institutional policy for academic personal tutoring, developing faculty and school level resources and procedures, re-designed the faculty approach to Welcome, Induction and Transition (WIT), and developed and implemented a new faculty employability and student sucess strategy.

In addition, I have and continue to contribute to modules across range of degree programmes in the School of Biomedical Sciences. I teach on our skills modules at levels 1 and 2, and motor control modules across all 3 levels. I also supervise BSc (hons) students, Msc Sport and Exercise Science Medicine students, and students enrolled on the MRes in Neuroscience and Sport, Exercise and Rehabilitation for their (final year) research projects, as well as acting as an academic personal tutor to these students. I am module manager for the Msc Sport and Exercise Medicine Research Project Module.


Research groups and institutes

  • Sport and Exercise Sciences
  • Neuroscience and Behaviour
<h4>Postgraduate research opportunities</h4> <p>We welcome enquiries from motivated and qualified applicants from all around the world who are interested in PhD study. Our <a href="https://phd.leeds.ac.uk">research opportunities</a> allow you to search for projects and scholarships.</p>
    <li><a href="//phd.leeds.ac.uk/project/1893-optimising-functional-independence-across-the-life-and-healthspan-using-neurostimulation">Optimising functional independence across the life and healthspan using neurostimulation</a></li>