Faculty Research Labs

Behavioral Neuroscience students have the amazing opportunity to participate in undergraduate research. Please contact the appropriate faculty members if you are interested in any of the following research topics:

Heather Brenhouse

Laboratory: Developmental Neuropsychobiology Laboratory
The Brenhouse lab studies the dynamic interaction between the brain, the body, and the environment throughout early life and adolescent development. Early life stress is a known risk factor for the development of mental illness, however the manifestation of disease does not typically occur until adolescence.  Using animal models with genetic, behavioral, and pharmacological manipulation, our laboratory investigates how the chemistry and connectivity of the brain is different during adolescence, how early experience can disrupt normal development, and how we might prevent deleterious changes.

Fred Davis

Specialization:  Neurobiology and development of circadian rhythms
Laboratory:  Biological Clocks Laboratory
Evolution on a planet with highly predictable 24 hour cycles in light and dark and in temperature has had a profound impact on life.  Twenty-four-hour periodicity is stamped into the DNA of every group of organisms and nearly every cell of your body.  Organisms isolated from external daily cues, continue to show regular 24-hour rhythms in processes from gene expression in bacteria to the timing of sleep and wakefulness in humans.  The myriad 24-hour, or circadian, rhythms observed at all levels of organization are manifestations of internal circadian programs driven by feedback loops involving “clock” genes and proteins.  Circadian programs can be disrupted by genetics, disease, and by the environment, increasingly so in a 24/7 society with light at night and the ability to rapidly travel across times zones.  In mammals, the SCN, a small cluster of neurons in the hypothalamus, coordinates circadian rhythms throughout the body.  Basic research on rodents in the Davis lab includes studies of SCN development, entrainment of the SCN by light/dark cycles, SCN communication with other parts of the brain, and repair of degenerated circadian rhythms by neural transplantation.  The lab also studies the development of rhythms in organs such as the lung and liver and whether environmental conditions influence circadian rhythm development.

Craig Ferris

Specialization: Developmental Risk and Protective Factors
Dr. Ferris’s research focuses on developmental behavioral neuroscience. Interests include the plasticity of the brain and how early emotional and environmental risk factors alter social and cognitive behaviors. Risk factors include drugs of abuse like cocaine and alcohol and social subjugation in the context of dominant/subordinate relationships. The laboratory uses standard molecular and neurobiological techniques to study the brains of rodents. In addition, ultra-high field magnetic resonance imaging is used as a non-invasive tool for developmental studies in monkeys enabling one to follow changes in brain structure, chemistry and function in the same animal over the course of its life. The goal of the research is to better understand the brain mechanisms contributing to mental illness and drug addiction in the hope of improving psychosocial and psychopharmacologic intervention strategies.

Denise Jackson

Specialization: Prenatal Exposure to Drugs of Abuse
Dr. Jackson’s research focuses on the effects of prenatal psychomotor stimulant exposure (amphetamine, cocaine, etc.) on brain monoaminergic systems in developing rodent offspring. Her research group examines the impact of drug-induced alterations of these monoaminergic systems on post-synaptic function. These studies are particularly relevant to the issues of permanent neurological deficits in children exposed to stimulant drugs in utero and the development of more effective and specific drug therapies. A major goal of this research is to characterize short- and long-term effects of prenatal drug exposure in rat offspring. Of particular interest is elucidating these effects at the neuroanatomical and biochemical levels. The neuroanatomical studies involve the use of immunocytochemical staining techniques to visualize cells in the brain and a computer-assisted image analysis system for quantification of drug effects. Neurochemical investigations are aimed at elucidating the functional consequences of drug-induced anatomical alterations. Ongoing studies utilize an in vitro slice preparation and in vivo brain microdialysis to measure basal and evoked neurotransmitter release.

Richard Melloni

Specialization: Adolescent Substance Use and Molecular Neurobiology of Behavior
Laboratory: Developmental and Molecular Neurobiology Laboratory
Dr. Melloni studies the developmental and molecular neurobiology of aggressive behavior. The primary focus of this research is to characterize the effects of drug use and social stress during critical phases of neural development on the molecular regulation of aggression. Three current research projects using animal models investigate: (1) the neurobiology of aggression following anabolic steroid and cocaine exposure during adolescent development; (2) the neurobiology of social subjugation (i.e. the acquisition of submissive behavior as the result of repeated physical defeat) during early neural development; and (3) the neurobiological consequences of exposure to psychiatric drugs used to treat aggression in clinical youth populations. Present studies employ evolving molecular biological methods and immunohistochemical procedures to investigate neuronal gene expression and development following experimental treatment. In addition, studies focused on the identification and characterization of novel biological markers of excessive, inappropriate aggression are underway currently in the laboratory using a population of high risk, aggressive, psychiatrically referred children and adolescents as a model.

Frank Naarendorp

Specialization: Visual Perception and Psychophysics
Laboratory: ERG Studies
Dr. Naarendorp’s research is aimed at understanding the relationship between neural activity in the retina and vision. His work involves both human and animal subjects. Experiments conducted on humans are psychophysical in nature. On animals he uses psychophysical, electrophysiological, and pharmacological techniques. For both humans and animals, Dr. Naarendorp seeks to describe response characteristics of photoreceptors and their associated retinal pathways. Studies of this kind are important from the standpoint of basic science because they provide insight into the early stages of information processing by the nervous system.

Donald M. O’Malley

Specialization: Computational and Systems Neuroscience, Biological Intelligence

The computational capabilities of neuronal populations are at the core of all that nervous systems do, from sensorimotor transformations to more complex behaviors.  Basic research, using confocal microscopy and high-speed behavioral imaging, seeks to understand the neural control of the zebrafish larva’s extended locomotor repertoire (including many behaviors discovered here at NU).  The larval zebrafish is a transparent predator that gives neurobiologists unparalleled access to the workings of an elegant set of neural circuits.  This is a rapidly expanding research field that started with confocal reconstructions and in vivo calcium imaging (O’Malley et al. 1996, 2003; O’Malley, 2008; Sankrithi and O’Malley, 2010), and now entails optogenetics and global brain mapping approaches.

The capabilities and intelligence that are intrinsic to the larva’s 150,000-neuron CNS were vastly expanded in the vertebrate lineage.  It is an extraordinary challenge to understand how the massively interconnected information engines of the mammalian CNS (neocortex, thalamus, hippocampus and the basal ganglia) emerged from simpler animals.  Human flash memory (Gioioso and O’Malley, 2009) and language are at the pinnacle of neuronal computation, but are not understandable absent an evolutionary approach grounded in the synaptic organization of local brain circuits.  The theoretical and computational branch of my research program aims to understand how intrinsic neuronal circuits, in conjunction with synaptic plasticity, evolved into the supremely powerful devices that epitomize the hominid lineage.

Rebeca Rosengaus

Specialization: Behavioral Ecology and Insect Sociobiology

My research tries to understand the factors that may have selected for the evolution of insect sociality. I have hypothesized that pathogens and/or parasites may have played important selection forces that favored the evolution of such complex societies as those of the ants, bees, wasps and termites. This evolutionary question is studied by focusing on the adaptations that social insects (mainly ants and termites) have evolved in order to resist disease. Termites and many ant species nest, feed and forage in microbially-rich environments and their colonies are composed of thousands of individuals which could easily become infected either through the direct contact with pathogens or indirectly through the social interactions among nestmates. Yet, in spite the high risks of infection, these social insects thrive within their nests. What are the means by which these insects cope with disease? What are the costs and benefits of group-living with respect to disease susceptibility and disease resistance? My research has established that termites and ants use several, and often simultaneous mechanisms to reduce the risks of infection, including behavioral, biochemical, immunological and social adaptations. My research is at the interface of evolutionary biology, behavioral and chemical ecology, immunology and genetics. Social insects represent excellent social test organisms to answer questions about the emerging field of “socioecoimmunology”. Our field work takes place at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama and at the Redwoods in California.  I enjoy and look forward to mentoring and advising undergraduate and graduate students during research experiences in my lab!

Rebecca Shansky

Specialization: Sex differences in fear circuit structure and function
Laboratory: Laboratory of Neuroanatomy and Behavior
Dr. Shansky’s  research focuses on the neural connections between the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) and the amygdala, and sex differences in how this circuit processes fear and responds to stress. The mPFC and amygdala are frequently reported to be sites of dysfunction in stress-related mental illnesses like Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), the symptoms of which may be a result of abnormal cross-talk between the two regions. Since women are twice as likely as men to develop these disorders, relevant research in female animals is particularly important.

In the lab, we combine classic neuroanatomy techniques with state-of-the-art confocal microscopy to reconstruct neurons in 3D. By correlating structural information with behavioral measures, we can identify potential markers of vulnerability and resilience. In addition, we use behavioral pharmacology and immunofluorescence to probe interactions between ovarian hormones and neurotransmitter systems. Specifically, we are interested in estrogen’s ability to modulate dopamine actions in the mPFC, and how this can affect memory for a traumatic event.

 Dagmar Sternad

Motor skills such as throwing a ball, eating with knife and fork or dancing are uniquely human and key to functional behavior. Optimizing the acquisition and preventing or reverting the degradation of skill requires a rigorous quantitative understanding. Our approach analyzes how human neurophysiology and task mechanics constrains sensorimotor skills and their change. Variability, both in its temporal and spatial structure, is core to capture skill and its change. This work has applications for and performance enhancement and recovery after neurological injury.

We pursue a three-pronged research strategy consisting of: (1) an empirical component with behavioral experiments on human subjects, (2) theoretical work which develops mathematical models for movement generation on the basis of coupled dynamical systems, and (3) brain imaging studies using EEG and TMS that investigate the neural activity accompanying movement. Our fundamental experimental paradigms have been the basis for studies of neurological disorders such as Parkinson’s disease, stroke patients, and children with motor disorders.

Günther Zupanc

Specialization: Adult Neurogenesis, Neuronal Regeneration, and Neural Mechanisms of Behavioral Plasticity
Laboratory: Laboratory of Neurobiology

Focus of the research of Dr. Günther K.H. Zupanc is on neural plasticity in the adult central nervous system of teleost fish, and on the role of structural changes of neurons in behavioral plasticity. Our ultimate goal is to help to answer some of the fundamental questions in neurobiology, such as:

• What cellular mechanisms underlie structural plasticity in the adult central nervous system?

• How do alterations in the structure of neurons mediate changes in the behavior of the whole animal?

• What evolutionary constraints have caused the enormous difference between mammals and teleost fish in the potential to exhibit neural plasticity?

• How can a better understanding of the mechanisms that mediate structural plasticity in the central nervous system of teleost fish be used to develop novel therapeutic strategies to cure neurodegenerative diseases, or lesions caused by brain and spinal cord injury, in humans?

To address these questions, we employ an integrative approach — the techniques and concepts used in our investigations are taken from a wide range of disciplines, including molecular biology, biochemistry, cell biology, neuroanatomy, neurophysiology, biophysics, computational neurobiology, and behavioral neurobiology.

  • Contact

    Behavioral Neuroscience
    Morline Gordon-Grier
    203 Mugar Life Sciences Bldg.