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Behavioral Neuroscience

Behavioral neuroscience is the study of behavior as a function of brain activity. At Northeastern, we integrate neuroanatomical, pharmacological, and genetic techniques to understand the biological basis of processes like learning and memory, addiction, stress, and mental illness. Members of the Department of Psychology collaborate with other neuroscientists in the departments of Biology, Physical Therapy, Physics, and Pharmacy both at Northeastern and throughout the Boston area.


Extensive research facilities are available for investigations in behavioral neuroscience, ranging from immunohistochemical techniques to ultra-high field magnetic resonance imaging. These are described below in conjunction with individual faculty research programs.


Heather Brenhouse
Specialization: Developmental effects of the environment on adolescent behavior, anatomy, and neuroinflammation
Laboratory: Developmental Neuropsychobiology Lab

Dr. Brenhouse’s lab studies the dynamic interaction between the brain, the body, and the environment throughout early life and adolescent development. Adverse or traumatic experience during early life is a known risk factor for the development of mental illness; however, the manifestation of disease does not typically occur until years after the adverse event. Using animal models with genetic, behavioral, and pharmacological manipulation, her laboratory investigates why this occurs, and how we might prevent it. Since stress plays an important role in the interaction of the brain with our immune system, her lab tries to measure how early life stress affects inflammatory responses and can subsequently change how neurons behave in emotion-regulating regions of the brain.  In this way, the lab aims to determine when and how early life experiences alter neural development, in order to treat unique at-risk populations and prevent a lifetime of mental illness. 

Craig Ferris
Specialization: Magnetic Resonance Imaging and Neurodegenerative Diseases
Laboratory: Center for Translational NeuroImaging (CTNI)

Work at the CTNI is focused on four major areas 1) Alzheimer’s disease, 2) Parkinson’s disease 3) repetitive mild traumatic brain injury, and 4) opioid addiction.  Preclinical animal models for each of these problems in human health are studied using non-invasive magnetic resonance imaging to follow developmental changes in brain function and structure.

Denise Jackson
Specialization: Prenatal Exposure to Drugs of Abuse
Laboratory: Neurotransmission and Brain Plasticity Lab

The primary focus of Dr. Jackson’s research is on how exposure to cocaine (and other psychostimulants including methamphetamine) exposure during pregnancy affects neuronal interactions in the fetus throughout development. We utilize neurochemical and behavioral strategies to assess alterations in brain areas modulating motor function and reward throughout development. The animal model we are using has several parallels to neuronal and behavioral changes that occur in humans with attention deficit disorder. Hence by characterizing alterations in our model in greater detail, we hope to develop pharmacological treatments that restore neurochemical and behavioral function at the clinical level.

Richard Melloni
Specialization: Adolescent Substance Use and Molecular Neurobiology of Behavior
Laboratory: Behavioral Neurobiology Laboratory

Dr. Melloni studies the neurobiology of aggressive behavior. The main goal of this research is to understand how drug use and exposure to social stress during adolescence alter brain development and influence aggressive behavior. The three main research projects using animal models investigate: (1) the neurobiology of aggression following adolescent exposure to androgens and stimulants; (2) the behavioral and neurobiological effects of exposure to psychiatric drugs used to treat aggression in youth; and  (3) the neurobiology of early social defeat stress (often referred to as social subjugation – the production of submissive behavior as the result of repeated physical defeat).

Rebecca Shansky
Specialization: Sex Differences in Stress and Fear
Laboratory: Neuroanatomy and Behavior Lab

Dr. Shansky’s lab studies how changes in neuronal connectivity can translate into behavioral changes after a stressful event. A disruption of communication between the prefrontal cortex and amygdala can lead to abnormal fear responses, and the lab combines behavioral testing with high-level microscopy to identify the neuroanatomical markers associated with individual variation in the expression of fear. Current research probes potential sex differences in these effects, and how ovarian hormones like estrogen can interact with neurotransmitters to produce unique fear responses and memories in females.