Our Research Focus

The Azevedo Lab explores circuit and molecular mechanisms that control innate behaviors, such as feeding and foraging. By understanding how the brain integrates emotional experience and control behavior, we can identify key targets to develop better therapeutic approaches to treat Eating Disorders, Anxiety and PTSD. The lab utilizes multidisciplinary approaches such as animal behavior, in vivo imaging using calcium and neuropeptide receptor-based optical sensors imaging, biochemistry and transcriptomics to address these important topics in neuroscience.

How does our brain integrate emotional experiences?

In our daily lives, emotions guide our behaviors. When we feel sad or scared, we look for comfort. When we feel happy, we want to sing and dance. Specific regions of our brain can integrate multimodal emotional experiences with context and relay this information to downstream areas that regulate homeostasis and/or motor control. In the lab, we use a variety of tools to determine:

 1) the specific neuronal populations that can encode salient non-spatial (i.e. predator odor) and spatial (i.e. place) information.

 2) the circuit mechanism by which these neurons control innate behaviors, such as feeding, locomotion and reward-seeking. 

Neural substrates of psychological stress

Psychological stress is defined as a specific relationship between the person and the environment that is appraised by the person as taxing or exceeding his or her resources and endangering his or her well-being (Lazarus and Folkman, 1984). Higher-order limbic structures are known to process psychological stress and integrate this information downstream to areas such as the hypothalamus and the brainstem, areas involved in the HPA axis control and that are connected to the spinal cord to regulate the sympathetic response to stress. In the lab, we model in mice acute and chronic stress using predator cues, such as fox odor. Using this ethologically-relevant model we use molecular and genetic approaches to provide insights into the central neural pathways that detect and integrate psychological stress. We also investigate how acute and chronic stress affect feeding behavior and physiology.

Neurobiology of Eating Disorders

ED have the highest mortality rate among all psychiatric disorders and are characterized by maladaptive eating behaviors (i.e. voluntary restriction) that often co-occur with anxiety and depression. In over 70% of ED cases, stress precedes maladaptive eating, yet the basic mechanisms involved in stress integration by the brain and the effects of stress in the regulation of feeding are unclear. In the lab we aim to understand the neural basis of maladaptive eating using Anorexia Nervosa models and Chronic Stress models.