Who we are
We are a group of scientists working to better understand the brain's involvement in normal and maladaptive behavior by developing innovative technologies and testing unconventional biomedical hypotheses
I was born in Kavala, a small coastal town in Greece. My family moved to Queens, NY when I was 3 years old and then back to Kavala when I was 10. After high-school I moved back to NY for undergraduate studies at Stony Brook University (SBU) where I studied Economics and Mathematics. A summer research fellowship in my junior year exposed me to behavioral pharmacology and molecular imaging research and this experience led me to pursue a PhD in Integrative Neuroscience at SBU. My doctoral research was carried out at Brookhaven National Laboratory in Dr. Nora Volkow's Laboratory of Neuroimaging. After this, I moved to the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai where I spent 5 years in Dr. Yasmin Hurd's Molecular Neuropsychopharmacology laboratory. During this time I also co-founded Metis Laboratories. I moved to Baltimore in the summer of 2015 to establish the BIMN lab at the NIDA IRP where I am currently a Tenure-track Investigator with an adjunct Assistant Professor appointment in the Psychiatry Department at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.
Juan L. Gomez, Ph.D. - IRTA Postdoctoral Fellow
"I'm just sayin"
A statement about my-[science]-self: I have a curiosity driven by the need to explore; doing my best to improve upon methods and techniques to devise a better way to catch that roadrunner.
Thoughts on experience: High School - An introduction to the lab, samples, and 96-wells. As a junior, I volunteered my school breaks and weekends to assist a biology graduate collecting and analyzing water/soil samples from rivers in Arizona. I was one of the few high school students among undergraduates to present our findings at the annual Arizona State University poster day. I was hooked. Undergraduate (B.S.) - An undergrad is only an undergrad by name in the lab of Cheryl Conrad at Arizona State University (ASU) where I received a degree in Psychology. These early experiences sharpened my lab work ethic and expectations as a future academic. Graduate (Ph.D.) - Good work with those that work good with you. Mentored by Victoria Luine, we worked with Michael Lewis and others at Hunter College of CUNY (HC) on my dissertation. Collaborations were an integral part of my graduate career, and almost every lab at HC contributed to my development as a scientist, for which I am grateful. Postdoc #1 – Envy has no place in productive endeavors. At my first postdoc in the Behavioral Neuroscience department at Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU), I was exposed to a new level of research and opportunities. Working with Andrey Ryabinin I learned the value of independent research and perseverance during difficult times. Postdoc #2 - Further research is needed… I joined the BIMN lab in 2015. Thus far, the radioactive signal may show me the way.
Jordi Bonaventura, Ph.D. - Research Fellow
I was born and raised in the midwest of Catalonia. I moved to Barcelona to earn degrees in Chemistry (2004) and Biochemistry (2006), both from the University of Barcelona. I stayed at the University of Barcelona to join the Molecular Neurobiology lab in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology for my doctoral research. Under the mentorship of Drs. Vicent Casadó and Carme Lluís I studied the role of GPCR multi-receptor complexes in the pharmacology of neuromodulators, focusing on dopamine, adenosine and cannabinoid receptors. In 2013, I moved to Baltimore to join NIDA as a postdoc in Dr. Sergi Ferré's lab where I shifted focus to psychostimulants and their underlying mechanisms. In 2016, I joined the BIMN lab where I undertake a wide spectrum of neuroscientific approaches to interrogate and identify mechanisms and novel targets for substance abuse disorder (SUD) and other neuropsychiatric diseases. But more importantly, I cook, eat, drink, run and hike across the country.
Oscar Solís, Ph.D. - IRTA Postdoctoral Fellow
I was born and raised in the tropical state of Guerrero in Mexico. After high school, I moved to Puebla, where I obtained a BSc in Biochemistry and a MSc degree in Physiology at the Autonomous University of Puebla. During my undergraduate studies, with Dr. Gonzalo Flores at the Physiology Institute, I worked on the alterations of cortical and striatal neurons in a rodent model of Parkinson disease. Then, after being accepted into the Ph.D. program in Neuroscience in Madrid, Spain, I joined the Neurobiology of Basal Ganglia Lab at Cajal Institute. Under the guidance of Prof. Rosario Moratalla, I studied the behavioral and molecular/structural/functional traits relevant to L-DOPA-induced dyskinesia and drug addiction. In my free time, I enjoy playing football, running, traveling and spending time with my family and friends.
Theresa Kopajtic, B.S. - Research Biologist
I am a Marylander born and bred, where I attended Mercy High School and Towson University achieving a Bachelor of Science in Biology with a minor in Chemistry. During my storied tenure with the National Institute Against Drug Abuse, which spans nearly 28 years, I have had the privilege to work under the esteemed guidance of Dr. Michael Kuhar and Dr. Jonathan Katz. Since 1989 I have specialized in the field of pharmacology and drug development, specifically working with the dopamine transporter and the mu, kappa and delta opioid receptors. I live in a rural area of Maryland with my husband and two rambunctious black labs. I enjoy world travel, the culinary arts, gardening, and the ocean. My passions are my kids (adults now) and my grandson.
Matthew Boehm, B.S. - Ph.D. Student (Brown University)
I was born and raised in Minnesota, where the winters are cold and the people are nice. I attended college in St. Paul at the University of St. Thomas. I began taking biology courses in the hopes of pursuing a career as a pharmacist. However, as a curious sophomore I had a change of heart and began looking for research opportunities. I had a hard time choosing between my two main interests, ecology and mental health, so I ended up doing both. I studied methane emissions from shallow wetlands in the prairie pothole region under the mentorship of Leah Domine. I also examined the relationships between tobacco use, sleep and affective disorders under the guidance of J. Roxanne Prichard. After earning a Bacher of Science in Biology with minors in Chemistry and Psychology, I knew I wanted to pursue graduate research. I decided to make the brain my work and leave nature for play. I joined the Brown University-NIH Graduate Partnership Program in 2016 and am working towards a PhD in neuroscience. Besides striving to become a better scientist, I enjoy fishing, hiking and watching nature documentaries.
Sherry Lam, B.S. - Research Technician
I was born in Manhattan, New York. I graduated from Binghamton University with a Bachelor of Science in Integrative Neuroscience in 2017. As a sophomore, I was part of the Summer Research Immersion (SRI) program where I worked with Dr. Corinne Kiessling investigating how acetylcholine loss affects motor performance, treatment efficacy, and dyskinesia using a parkinsonian rat model. As a junior, I taught and guided students part of the Freshman Research Immersion (FRI) program throughout their research experiment. In summer 2016, I worked with Dr. Gabor Egervari in Dr. Yasmin Hurd’s Molecular Neuropsychopharmacology laboratory helping with a pilot study on how heroin-induced molecular disturbances on acetyl-H3 impacts cynomolgus monkey brain tissue using histone acetylation. I enjoy listening to music, knitting, and crocheting during my free time.
Meghan Carlton, B.S. - IRTA Postbaccalaureate Fellow
I grew up in Hopewell, New Jersey. Very early in my academic career I realized that I loved all of my science coursework and as high school progressed, I became primarily interested in studying the brain. I attended the University of Pittsburgh focused on studying neuroscience and I completed my bachelor’s degree in 2019. As a sophomore, I joined Dr. Alberto Vazquez’s lab where I worked for 2.5 years with a mouse model of Alzheimer’s disease. My undergraduate thesis was focused on optogenetic cortical stimulation and changes in plaque deposition. In my free time I enjoy making art, doing triathlons and eating large quantities of humanely sourced, organic, non-GMO vegan foods washed down with a glass of Chianti.
What we think we do
Chemogenetics-based neurotheranostics for precision medicine applications
We are developing and characterizing novel, selective, and potent neurotheranostic ligands for chemogenetic technologies and combining their use with translational molecular imaging.
Figure: Precision medicine offers significant advantages over conventional medical treatment. Within precision medicine, theranostics comprises a strategy that combines THERApeutic and diagNOSTIC strategies to provide a personalized treatment approach encompassing disease diagnosis, drug delivery, and disease/therapy monitoring using a single agent. Theranostic strategies confer improvement in treatment efficacy compared to conventional medicine and specifically afford significant promise for precision psychiatry, neurology and other areas. Such neurotheranostic interventions are particularly timely considering the recent development of breakthrough translational neuromodulatory technologies. One such technology, called chemogenetics, offers the unprecedented ability to control neuronal activity in a cell type-specific manner in the freely-moving subject, without the need for chronically-implantable devices. These properties are also advantageous for clinical applications. Furthermore, chemogenetic technologies can be combined with clinical molecular imaging diagnostic methods such as positron emission tomography (PET). This combination extends the therapeutic component of chemogenetics to encompass its use in precision medicine-based neurotheranostics.
Noninvasive, quantitative and longitudinal monitoring of opsin localization and expression for translational and clinical optogenetics
Optogenetics is a revolutionary technology that consists of light-sensitive ion channels which upon stimulation by light can either activate or inhibit the neurons in which they are expressed in, with exquisite temporal precision. Optogenetics has had a tremendous impact on basic neuroscience research and holds significant promise for clinical applications. However, a critical limitation of this technology, especially for translational and clinical applications, is that one cannot visualize the location of the optogenetic ion channels (i.e. opsins) in the brain in a noninvasive manner.
Figure: We developed the first noninvasive reporter detection system for optogenetics. This scalable system consists of chimeric opsins tagged with a small protein epitope and a clinically-used PET radioligand and permits noninvasive, quantitative, and longitudinal detection of opsins in the brain in translational and potentially, also in clinical applications.
Noninvasive, quantitative, and longitudinal cell type-specific mapping of brain activity
We implement chemogenetics and optogenetics combined with PET imaging in awake, freely-moving animals either in an exploratory fashion, to determine whole-brain functional networks recruited during behaviorally-relevant contexts, or to corroborate functional connectivity of a defined neuron-type, region, or pathway. We use such approaches to map functional anatomy related to a variety of cell-types/projections in distinct brain regions in basic and translational research.
Figure: DREADD-assisted metabolic mapping (DREAMM) showing metabolic activation of a brain network comprising cingulate gyrus (CG), olfactory tubercle (OT) and extended amygdala (ExA) in response to DREADD-mediated inhibition of prodynorphin-expressing neurons in a discrete subregion of the amygdala, the periamygdaloid cortex.
Noninvasive, quantitative, and longitudinal cell type-specific biobehavioral molecular imaging
A large portion of our research program relies on the use of advanced quantitative molecular imaging via positron emission tomography (PET). We perform PET studies by employing a variety of radioligands depending on experimental need. These can be procured commercially or custom made to perform non-invasive and longitudinal assessments of brain metabolic activity, neuroinflammation, neurotransmitter displacement, and receptor occupancy/target engagement of candidate compounds or other processes.
Figure: PET image coregistered to MRI showing non-invasive assessment of dopamine D2/D3 receptors using [11C]raclopride in mouse striatum.
Development of high-sensitivity, noninvasive, translational molecular imaging PET probes
We are developing novel imaging agents & applications for various biologically-relevant endogenous targets.
Figure: Noninvasive imaging of elemental trace zinc uptake throughout the body of a mouse. High levels of zinc are observed in the brain, spine, nasal area, joints, and liver.
Trace metals and neurobiology
Metals such as Fe, Zn and Cu are essential for normal neurobiological functioning and many disease states are characterized by metal imbalances. However, the precise involvement of such metals in general neurobiology, and in disease states like addiction and substance abuse are not well understood. Since these metals are found in trace amounts within the brain, obtaining accurate measures of their content in such tissue requires advanced physical approaches such as X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy and imaging. We utilize techniques such as total reflection X-ray fluorescence in our lab as well as synchrotron X-ray fluorescence studies at national synchrotrons.
Figure: Synchrotron X-Ray Fluorescence Microscopy of Zn (red) , Fe (green) and Cu (blue) in the mouse striatum showing discrete localization of each trace metal to distinct regional compartments.
Neuroscience & Artificial Intelligence
We are exploring the interface of neuroscience and AI by leveraging the Brain Observatory dataset from the Allen Institute to examine the performance of novel machine and deep learning neural network architectures at decoding visual stimuli from calcium data derived from the parcellated visual cortex of the mouse. This approach is also yielding interesting novel facets of the biological properties of visual stimulus encoding by discrete cell types of the visual cortex. Our recent preprint describing the use of deep learning for visual decoding can be found here.
Figure: Example GCaMP6f trace data alongside a representative machine learning architecture we are implementing for visual stimulus decoding using neuronal calcium data derived from discrete cell-types.
What we really do
Tools & Resources
Radioligands & Imaging Agents
Our lab has pioneered the use of the agents below for non-invasive localization of chemogenetic and optogenetic switches in various species with the ultimate goal being human application.
[3H]ASEM - In vitro PSAM4-GlyR & PSAM4-5HT3 quantification
[18F]ASEM - Longitudinal In vivo PSAM4-GlyR & PSAM4-5HT3 quantification
[3H]Clozapine - In vitro hM3Dq/hM4Di quantification
[3H]Compound 13 (C13) - In vitro hM3Dq/hM4Di quantification
[18F]JHU37107 (J07) - Longitudinal In vivo hM3Dq/hM4Di quantification
Optogenetics (coming soon)
Our lab has developed the first DREADD agonists that exhibit high affinity, high in vivo potency, and high brain penetrance in several species, which favors clinical translation. These compounds require very low systemic doses (<0.1 mg/kg) to facilitate rapid and remote activation of chemogenetic switches in the brain.
Plasmids & Viral Vectors
For translational and clinical gene therapy applications, chemogenetic/optogenetic switches need to be optimized to drive efficient expression and trafficking to the cell membrane, where their respective actuators would achieve maximum efficacy. For this reason, our goal has been to optimize existing chemogenetic/optogenetic gene therapy constructs for optimal expression and targeting. One way of doing this is to strip bulky and potentially toxic fluorescent reporters, typically used in such designs, and which are not useful for translational and clinical applications. Our strategy is to leverage the use of our translational PET-based reporters for non-invasive and longitudinal quantification of chemogenetic/optogenetic switches along with small epitopes (e.g. HA-tag) whenever in vitro detection would be necessary.
New paper published: Striatal Rgs4 and obesity vulnerability
Striatal Rgs4 regulates feeding and susceptibility to diet-induced obesity
New paper published: Striatal MC4R as an interface for reward and aversion.
Motivational valence is determined by striatal melanocortin 4 receptors
Mike's interview for Science magazine: Could deep brain stimulation help zap diabetes?
Mike's interview for the American Psychiatric Association (APA): DREADDs Could Guide More Targeted Treatments in Future
Research highlight about our recent work on chemogenetics
Our recent work highlighted in the journal Nature Methods
September 29 2017
Research highlight about your recent work on chemogenetics
Our recent work highlighted in the journal Nature Chemical Biology
September 19 2017
New paper published! Chemogenetics revealed...
August 3rd 2017
Chemogenetics revealed: DREADD occupancy and activation via converted clozapine
New paper published! Brain dopamine and peripheral glucose...
June 5th 2017
Dopamine D2 Receptor Signaling in the Nucleus Accumbens Comprises a Metabolic-Cognitive Brain Interface Regulating Metabolic Components of Glucose Reinforcement
Welcome to the lab Sherry Lam, Kelsey Wright and Dondre Marable!!
June 4th 2017
On to PhD!!! Congratulations to Randy and Lionel for being admitted to grad school!! Randy will attend the Biomedical Science PhD program at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and Lionel will attend the Neuroscience PhD program at Johns Hopkins.
November 2016 SfN Meeting in San Diego
Lionel presenting his poster at SfN 2016. Think Zinc!!
November 2016 SfN Meeting in San Diego
Randy presenting his poster at SfN 2016.
Kelsey Wright, B.S.
IRTA Postbaccalaureate Fellow
Current - Ph.D. Student
Dondre Marable, B.S.
IRTA Postbaccalaureate Fellow/Diversity Fellow
Current - Entrepreneur/Industry
Weilin Chan, B.S.
Special Volunteer/Summer Student
Current - M.D. Student
University of Buffalo
Randall J. Ellis, B.S.
IRTA Postbaccalaureate Fellow
Current - Ph.D. student
Biophysics & Systems Pharmacology
Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai
Lionel A. Rodriguez, B.S.
IRTA Postbaccalaureate Fellow
Current - Ph.D. student,
Johns Hopkins University
RTURP Research Fellow
Current - Student, Loyola University
Kat Daly, B.S.
Lab rotation, NIH GPP program
Current - Ph.D. student
JHU/NIH GPP Program
Where to find us
NIDA Intramural Research Program
Biomedical Research Center
251 Bayview Blvd
Baltimore MD 21224