My central research focus is to understand how social information is encoded in neural circuits that regulate affective and motivational states. My lab employs a combination of approaches, including in vivo deep-brain calcium imaging with single-cell resolution (2-photon microscopy and miniaturized scopes) and optogenetics, to monitor and manipulate the activity of neurons with anatomical and molecular precision in awake behaving mice.
A major goal of this work is to characterize the functional connections between the medial preoptic area (mPOA), an essential site for social behavior, and key centers that regulate positive and negative affect. We are interested in understanding how prosocial experience recruits these circuits to promote social motivation and buffer against stress and anxiety, and conversely how chronic stress perturbs these processes. A second line of research investigates whether social reward systems are separate from or overlapping with those that govern nonsocial natural reward. For example, we are imaging midbrain dopaminergic neurons with single-cell resolution and making comparisons between social versus nonsocial reward. While the mesolimbic dopamine system has been well implicated in adaptive and maladaptive reward processing, it is unknown whether social motivation deficits are due to perturbations in specialized social pathways or due to more generalized reward disruptions. Identifying whether subnetworks of neurons within the reward system are specialized for socially-relevant emotional states could help discover the ways in which certain behavioral abnormalities arise. Collectively, these studies will provide insights into social and motivational processes that are disrupted across a range of conditions, including major depression, reproductive mood disorders, and autism spectrum disorders.
Education and Training
Ph.D., Florida State University, 2013
Postdoctoral Fellow, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2013 - 2018
Associated Faculty Labs
Selected Grants and Awards
- Dissecting midbrain and preoptic circuits that regulate social and nonsocial emotional states, K99 Pathway to Independence Award, the National Institute of Mental Health (Principal Investigator). 2017-2021.
- Visualizing network dynamics in hormone-responsive reward circuits, NARSAD Young Investigator Award, the Brain and Behavior Research Foundation (Principal Investigator). 2017-2019.
- Single cell transcriptional profiling to identify novel neurocircuit targets for reproductive mood disorders awarded by the Foundation of Hope (Co-Investigators, Stuber & McHenry). 2016-2022.
- Deconstructing maternal circuit elements that underlie anxiety and motivation awarded by the Foundation of Hope (Principal Investigator). 2014-2018.
- Reproductive Mood Disorders Fellowship awarded by the National Institute of Mental Health (Postdoctoral National Research Service Award, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill). 2013-2016.
- Sex-specific midbrain neural circuits that underlie divergent motivational states awarded by the National Institute of Drug Addiction (Research Investigator). 2014-2016.
- Effects of social experience on behavioral and neuronal stress response in male and females awarded by the National Science Foundation (Principal Investigator). 2013-2014.
- Department of Psychology and Neuroscience