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David J. Anderson

Seymour Benzer Professor of Biology; Tianqiao and Chrissy Chen Institute for Neuroscience Leadership Chair; Investigator, Howard Hughes Medical Institute; Director, Tianqiao and Chrissy Chen Institute for Neuroscience
Contact information for David J. Anderson
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A.B., Harvard University, 1978; Ph.D., Rockefeller University, 1983. Assistant Professor, Caltech, 1986-92; Associate Professor, 1992-96; Professor, 1996-2004; Roger W. Sperry Professor, 2004-09; Benzer Professor, 2009-; Chen Institute for Neuroscience Leadership Chair, 2017-; HHMI Investigator, 1989-; Director, 2017-.

Research Interests

Genetic dissection of neural circuits controlling emotional behaviors

Director, Tianqiao and Chrissy Chen Institute for Neuroscience

The Neurobiology of Emotional Behavior

Research interests in my laboratory focus on understanding how emotional behavior is encoded in the brain, at the level of specific neuronal circuits, and the specific neuronal subtypes that comprise them. We want to understand the structure and dynamic properties of these circuits and how they give rise to the outward behavioral expressions of emotions such as fear, anxiety or anger. This information will provide a framework for understanding how and where in the brain emotions are influenced by genetic variation and environmental influence ("nature" and "nurture"), and may someday lead to improved drugs to treat psychiatric disorders such as depression. We are using both mice and the vinegar fly Drosophila melanogaster as model systems. A central focus of the laboratory is on the neural circuits underlying aggression and fear. We are using molecular genetic tools, as well as functional imaging and electrophysiology, to establish cause-and-effect relationships between the activity of specific neuronal circuits and behavior. We hope that this research will lead to new insights into the organization of emotion circuits, and their dysregulation in psychiatric disorders.

Emotion circuits in the mouse brain

Research using the laboratory mouse Mus musculus focuses on understanding the neurobiology of fear, anxiety and aggression, and the interrelationships between the circuitry that processes these emotions.

Neurobiology of fear and anxiety

Our studies of fear are currently centered on the function of circuits in the amygdala, a medial temporal lobe structure that plays an important role in Pavlovian learned fear, a form of classical conditioning. We have identified genes that mark several subpopulations of neurons that form a dynamic microcircuit within the central nucleus of the amygdala (Haubensak et al., 2010). The function of this microcircuit in fear behavior is being dissected using optogenetic tools, such as channelrhodopsin, and pharmacogenetic tools, such as the ivermectin-gated glutamate sensitive chloride channel (GluCl) (Lerchner et al. 2007), together with acute slice electrophysiology and genetically based anatomical tracing of synaptic pathways. More recent studies have applied optogenetic approaches to dissecting the neural circuitry of the lateral septum, a relatively under-studied structure that plays an important role in the control of stress-induced anxiety, as well as neurons in the hypothalamus that control innate fear.


neuronal subpopulations in the amygdala central nucleus The figure illustrates three neuronal subpopulations in the amygdala central nucleus

Neurobiology of aggression

Aggression is a naturally occurring, instinctive social behavior, but pathological violence takes an enormous toll on human society. Yet the neurobiology of aggressive behavior is tremendously understudied by comparison to other emotional and affective behaviors, such as fear and anxiety. It has been known for almost a century that electrical stimulation of certain regions of the hypothalamus can elicit attack behavior. However the identity of the neurons responsible for this behavior, their precise location, connectivity with other brain regions, and their relationship to neurons mediating other social behaviors, such as mating, are unknown. Furthermore, most such studies have been performed in cats and rats, limiting the applicability of genetic tools. We have recently shown that optogenetic stimulation of neurons in the ventromedial hypothalamic nucleus (VMH), using a virally expressed channelrhodopsin-2 (ChR2), can evoke attack in male mice that is time-locked to the light stimulus, not only towards a female (which is normally never attacked), but also towards an inanimate object such as a latex glove. Interestingly, electrophysiological recordings in awake behaving mice indicate that VMH contains intermingled populations of neurons that are involved in either male-male aggression, or male-female mating. Our current studies have identified molecular markers for attack neurons, opening the way to mapping the circuitry through which these neurons influence aggressive behavior, and their relationship to neurons controlling mating.  These studies should lead to a better understanding of how internal states, such as arousal or motivation, are translated into behavioral action-selection ("decision-making").

Neural circuits for "emotional" behavior in Drosophila

The pioneering work of the late Seymour Benzer proved that the powerful genetics of Drosophila can be used to dissect the genetic underpinnings of many types of complex behaviors. Until recently, however, it was not clear whether this model system could also be applied to understanding the neurobiology of emotion and affect. We are taking two complementary approaches to determine the extent to which this is possible, and if so what we can learn from it. One approach is to dissect the neural circuitry underlying behaviors that are analogous to defensive behaviors in higher organisms, such as aggression (Wang et al., 2008; Wang and Anderson, 2009). The other is to model internal states or processes that are fundamental to many types of emotional responses, such as arousal, to ask for example whether arousal is unitary, or whether there are different types of behavior-specific arousal states (Lebestky et al., 2009). In both cases, we are developing novel behavioral assays, as well as machine vision-based approaches (Dankert et al., 2009) to automate the measurement of these behaviors (in collaboration with Pietro Perona, Allen E. Puckett Professor of Electrical Engineering), and are using molecular genetic-based tools to image and perturb neuronal activity in order to identify the specific circuits that mediate these behaviors.

Selected Awards

2016 17th Perl-UNC Neuroscience Prize 2010 Paul G Allen Distinguished Investigator Award 2001 Ferguson Award for Graduate Teaching 1999 Alden Spencer Award in Neurobiology 1996 Ferguson Award for Biology Education 1990 Charles Judson Herrick Award in Comparative Neurology 1989 Javits Investigator in Neuroscience (NIH)

Professional Societies

2007 National Academy of Science 2002 Fellow, American Association for the Advancement of Science 2002 Fellow, American Academy of Arts and Science 2001 Associate, The Neurosciences Institute

Selected Publications


Remedios, Ryan and Kennedy, Ann and Zelikowsky, Moriel et al. (2017) Social behaviour shapes hypothalamic neural ensemble representations of conspecific sex. Nature, 550 (7676). pp. 388-392. ISSN 0028-0836.

Watanabe, Kiichi and Chiu, Hui and Pfeiffer, Barret D. et al. (2017) A Circuit Node that Integrates Convergent Input from Neuromodulatory and Social Behavior-Promoting Neurons to Control Aggression in Drosophila. Neuron, 95 (5). pp. 1112-1128. ISSN 0896-6273.


David J. Anderson. (2016) Circuit modules linking internal states and social behaviour in flies and mice. Nature Reviews Neuroscience 17 pp. 692-704. doi:10.1038/nrn.2016.125

Anderson, David J. (2016) Social behavior circuits in flies and mice. Chemical Senses, 41 (9). E111. ISSN 0379-864X.


Hoopfer, Eric D. and Jung, Yonil and Inagaki, Hidehiko K. et al. (2015) P1 interneurons promote a persistent internal state that enhances inter-male aggression in Drosophila. eLife, 4 . Art. No. 11346. ISSN 2050-084X. (In Press)

Hong, Weizhe and Kennedy, Ann and Burgos-Artizzu, Xavier P. et al. (2015) Automated measurement of mouse social behaviors using depth sensing, video tracking, and machine learning. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences . ISSN 0027-8424.

Gibson, William T. and Gonzalez, Carlos R. and Fernandez, Conchi et al. (2015) Behavioral Responses to a Repetitive Visual Threat Stimulus Express a Persistent State of Defensive Arousal in Drosophila. Current Biology, 25 (11). pp. 1401-1415. ISSN 0960-9822.

Jorgenson, Lyric A. and Newsom, William T. and Anderson, David J. et al. (2015) The BRAIN Initiative: developing technology to catalyse neuroscience discovery. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological Sciences, 370 (1668). Art. No. 20140164. ISSN 0962-8436. PMCID PMC4387507.

Kunwar, Prabhat S. and Zelikowsky, Moriel and Remedios, Ryan et al. (2015) Ventromedial hypothalamic neurons control a defensive emotion state. eLife, 4 . Art. No. e06633 . ISSN 2050-084X. PMCID PMC4379496.


Kennedy, Ann and Asahina, Kenta and Hoopfer, Eric et al. (2014) Internal States and Behavioral Decision-Making: Toward an Integration of Emotion and Cognition. Cold Spring Harbor Symposia on Quantitative Biology, 79 . pp. 199-210. ISSN 0091-7451.

Inagaki, Hidehiko K. and Panse, Ketaki M. and Anderson, David J. (2014) Independent, Reciprocal Neuromodulatory Control of Sweet and Bitter Taste Sensitivity during Starvation in Drosophila. Neuron, 84 (4). pp. 806-820. ISSN 0896-6273.

Anderson, David J. and Perona, Pietro (2014) Toward a Science of Computational Ethology. Neuron, 84 (1). pp. 18-31. ISSN 0896-6273.

Hong, Weizhe and Kim, Dong-Wook and Anderson, David J. (2014) Antagonistic Control of Social versus Repetitive Self-Grooming Behaviors by Separable Amygdala Neuronal Subsets. Cell, 158 (6). pp. 1348-1361. ISSN 0092-8674.

Anderson, David J. (2014) Paul Patterson: In Memoriam. Neuron, 83 (5). pp. 1040-1042. ISSN 0896-6273.

Cai, Haijiang et al. (2014) Central amygdala PKC-δ^+ neurons mediate the influence of multiple anorexigenic signals. Nature Neuroscience, 17 (9). pp. 1240-1248. ISSN 1097-6256.

Lim, Rod S. et al. (2014) How Food Controls Aggression in Drosophila. PLoS ONE, 9 (8). Art. No. e105626. ISSN 1932-6203.

Lee, Hyosang et al. (2014) Scalable control of mounting and attack by Esr1^+ neurons in the ventromedial hypothalamus. Nature, 509 (7502). pp. 627-632. ISSN 0028-0836.

Falkner, Annegret L. et al. (2014) Decoding Ventromedial Hypothalamic Neural Activity during Male Mouse Aggression. Journal of Neuroscience, 34 (17). pp. 5971-5984. ISSN 0270-6474.

Anderson, David J. and Adolphs, Ralph (2014) A Framework for Studying Emotions across Species. Cell, 157 (1). pp. 187-200. ISSN 0092-8674.

Anthony, Todd E. et al. (2014) Control of Stress-Induced Persistent Anxiety by an Extra-Amygdala Septohypothalamic Circuit. Cell, 156 (3). pp. 522-536. ISSN 0092-8674.

Asahina, Kenta et al. (2014) Tachykinin-Expressing Neurons Control Male-Specific Aggressive Arousal in Drosophila. Cell, 156 (1-2). pp. 221-235. ISSN 0092-8674.


Inagaki, Hidehiko K. et al. (2013) Optogenetic control of Drosophila using a red-shifted channelrhodopsin reveals experience-dependent influences on courtship. Nature Methods, 11 (3). pp. 325-332. ISSN 1548-7091.

Adolphs, Ralph and Anderson, David (2013) Social and emotional neuroscience: Editorial overview. Current Opinion in Neurobiology, 23 (3). pp. 291-293. ISSN 0959-4388.

Vrontou, Sophia et al. (2013) Genetic identification of C fibres that detect massage-like stroking of hairy skin in vivo. Nature, 493 (7434). pp. 669-673. ISSN 0028-0836.


Tayler, Timothy D. et al. (2012) A neuropeptide circuit that coordinates sperm transfer and copulation duration in Drosophila. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 109 (50). pp. 20697-20702. ISSN 0027-8424.

Anderson, David J. (2012) Optogenetics, Sex, and Violence in the Brain: Implications for Psychiatry. Biological Psychiatry, 71 (12). pp. 1081-1089. ISSN 0006-3223 .

Burgos-Artizzu, Xavier P. et al. (2012) Social behavior recognition in continuous video. In: 2012 IEEE Conference on Computer Vision and Pattern Recognition (CVPR). IEEE , Piscataway, NJ, pp. 1322-1329. ISBN 978-1-4673-1226-4

Hergarden, Anne Christina and Tayler, Timothy D. and Anderson, David J. (2012) Allatostatin-A neurons inhibit feeding behavior in adult Drosophila. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 109 (10). pp. 3967-3972. ISSN 0027-8424.

Inagaki, Hidehiko K. et al. (2012) Visualizing Neuromodulation In Vivo: TANGO-Mapping of Dopamine Signaling Reveals Appetite Control of Sugar Sensing. Cell, 148 (3). pp. 583-595. ISSN 0092-8674.


Lo, Liching and Anderson, David J. (2011) A Cre-Dependent, Anterograde Transsynaptic Viral Tracer for Mapping Output Pathways of Genetically Marked Neurons. Neuron, 72 (6). pp. 938-950. ISSN 0896-6273.

Lukaszewicz, Agnès I. and Anderson, David J. (2011) Cyclin D1 promotes neurogenesis in the developing spinal cord in a cell cycle-independent manner. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 108 (28). pp. 11632-11637. ISSN 0027-8424.

Wang, Liming et al. (2011) Hierarchical chemosensory regulation of male-male social interactions in Drosophila.Nature Neuroscience, 14 (6). pp. 757-762. ISSN 1097-6256.

Lin, Dayu et al. (2011) Functional identification of an aggression locus in the mouse hypothalamus. Nature, 470 (7333). pp. 221-226. ISSN 0028-0836.


Haubensak, Wulf et al. (2010) Genetic dissection of an amygdala microcircuit that gates conditioned fear.Nature, 468 (7321). pp. 270-276. ISSN 0028-0836.

Shields, Shannon D. et al. (2010) Pain behavior in the formalin test persists after ablation of the great majority of C-fiber nociceptors. Pain, 151 (2). pp. 422-429. ISSN 0304-3959.

Guan, Yun et al. (2010) Mas-related G-protein–coupled receptors inhibit pathological pain in mice. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 107 (36). pp. 15933-15938. ISSN 0027-8424.

Wang, Liming and Anderson , David J. (2010) Identification of an aggression-promoting pheromone and its receptor neurons in Drosophila. Nature, 463 (7278). pp. 227-232. ISSN 0028-0836.


Liu, Qin et al. (2009) Sensory Neuron-Specific GPCR Mrgprs Are Itch Receptors Mediating Chloroquine-Induced Pruritus. Cell, 139 (7). pp. 1353-1365. ISSN 0092-8674.

Lebestky, Tim et al. (2009) Two Different Forms of Arousal in Drosophila Are Oppositely Regulated by the Dopamine D1 Receptor Ortholog DopR via Distinct Neural Circuits. Neuron, 64 (4). pp. 522-536. ISSN 0896-6273.

Imamachi, Noritaka et al. (2009) TRPV1-expressing primary afferents generate behavioral responses to pruritogens via multiple mechanisms. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 106 (27). pp. 11330-11335. ISSN 0027-8424.

Rau, Kristofer K. et al. (2009) Mrgprd Enhances Excitability in Specific Populations of Cutaneous Murine Polymodal Nociceptors. Journal of Neuroscience, 29 (26). pp. 8612-8619. ISSN 0270-6474.

Cavanaugh, Daniel J. et al. (2009) Distinct subsets of unmyelinated primary sensory fibers mediate behavioral responses to noxious thermal and mechanical stimuli. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 106 (22). pp. 9075-9080. ISSN 0027-8424.

Dankert, Heiko et al. (2009) Automated monitoring and analysis of social behavior in Drosophila. Nature Methods, 6 (4). pp. 297-303. ISSN 1548-7091.

Yorozu, Suzuko et al. (2009) Distinct sensory representations of wind and near-field sound in the Drosophila brain. Nature, 458 (7235). pp. 201-206. ISSN 0028-0836.

Ng, Lydia et al. (2009) An anatomic gene expression atlas of the adult mouse brain. Nature Neuroscience, 12 (3). pp. 356-362. ISSN 1097-6256.


Wang, Liming et al. (2008) A common genetic target for environmental and heritable influences on aggressiveness in Drosophila. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 105 (15). pp. 5657-5663. ISSN 0027-8424.