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Division of Intramural Research

Section on Behavioral Neurocircuitry and Cellular Plasticity

3D reconstruction of central amygdala neuron

Yarimar Carrasquillo, Ph.D., leads the Behavioral Neurocircuitry and Cellular Plasticity Section in the NCCIH Intramural Division. The main goal of the lab is to identify anatomical, molecular, and cellular mechanisms that underlie pathological pain states. Research will focus on the amygdala, a structure in the limbic brain system that plays critical roles in the modulation of tactile hypersensitivity, pain-related aversion learning, and pain-induced changes in anxiety-related behaviors in rodent models of persistent pain.

Electrophysiological studies have demonstrated that increased excitability of amygdala neurons correlates with persistent pain, suggesting that hyperexcitability of neurons in the amygdala plays a critical role in the modulation of pain hypersensitivity. The specific conductance pathways affected and the molecular mechanisms underlying plasticity of the intrinsic excitability of amygdala neurons, however, are not known. In addition, the physiological role(s) of changes in the excitability of amygdala neurons to pain-related behaviors remain undefined. Research in the lab addresses these questions directly by combining behavioral, biochemical, electrophysiological, pharmacologic and molecular genetic approaches.

Parallel studies in the lab use anatomical, behavioral, electrophysiological, and optogenetic approaches to define how alterations in the excitability of amygdala neurons affect function at a circuit level. These studies focus on evaluating the physiological impact of the modulation of neuronal excitability in distinct anatomical pathways to and from the amygdala on different components of persistent pain, including the sensory, affective, and cognitive components.

We are now accepting postdoc applications! Submit your application to Dr. Yarimar Carrasquillo.

Lab Chief

carrasquillo yarimar_Lisa Helfert

Dr. Yarimar Carrasquillo joined the Pain and Integrative Neuroscience  Branch of the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) as an Investigator in 2014. In her lab, Dr. Carrasquillo directs a multifaceted, multidisciplinary research program focused on delineating the anatomical, molecular, and cellular mechanisms that underlie pain perception and modulation.

Dr. Carrasquillo received her B.S. in Biology from the University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras and her Ph.D. in Neuroscience from Baylor College of Medicine. She started her scientific career by studying the molecular basis of learning and memory as a Minority Biomedical Research Support Program (MBRS) Undergraduate Trainee in the lab of Dr. Sandra Peña de Ortiz. She continued studying the neural mechanisms underlying behavior during her graduate training in the lab of Dr. Robert W. Gereau at Baylor College of Medicine.

Her graduate work revealed critical roles for the amygdala in the modulation of persistent pain and also demonstrated that the extracellular signal regulated kinase (ERK) plays a role in this process. Her postdoctoral studies in the lab of Dr. Jeanne Nerbonne at Washington University School of Medicine revealed previously unappreciated molecular and functional diversity of repolarizing voltage-gated K+ currents in central neurons.

Lab Members

Barbara Benowitz

Barbara Benowitz, Postbaccalaureate Fellow

Barbara Benowitz is a postbaccalaureate fellow in the Section on Behavioral Neurocircuitry and Cellular Plasticity. Barbara graduated from Gettysburg College in 2020 with a bachelor’s degree in psychology. She is interested in studying the role of the central amygdala in the modulation of pain-related behaviors as well as the neurocircuitry associated with reward behaviors and motivation. She is currently contributing to a project looking at the central amygdala–zona incerta pathway specifically and its involvement in chronic pain modulation. She can be reached at barbara.benowitz@nih.gov or 301-594-2477.

Sarah Chaudhry

Sarah Chaudhry, Postbaccalaureate Fellow

Sarah Chaudry is a postbaccalaureate fellow in the Section on Behavioral Neurocircuitry and Cellular Plasticity. Sarah graduated from Michigan State University in 2020 with a dual degree in neuroscience and Spanish. Sarah is interested in investigating the electrophysiological properties of neurons located in the central nucleus of the amygdala to further understand the mechanisms that direct the brain’s modulation of pain. She is currently contributing to a project focused on characterizing the synaptic and intrinsic membrane properties of neurons in the parabrachial-central amygdala pathway.

Adela Francis-Malave

Adela Francis-Malavé, Postbaccalaureate Fellow

Adela Francis-Malavé is a postbaccalaureate fellow in the Section on Behavioral Neurocircuitry and Cellular Plasticity. Adela graduated from the University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras Campus, in 2020 with a B.S. in biology with an emphasis in cellular and molecular biology. She is interested in understanding the brain circuits that underlie pain-related behaviors and the different pharmacologic approaches that can produce antinociception in mouse models of inflammatory pain. Other research topics of interest to Adela are neurodegenerative diseases and autoimmune diseases of the nervous system. Adela is currently working on evaluating the potential antinociceptive and anti-inflammatory effect of 4R-cembranoid, a novel positive allosteric modulator type 2 of alpha 7 nicotinic acetylcholine receptors, in a mouse model of inflammatory pain. She can be reached at adela.francismalave@nih.gov.

Research Publications:

Butler-Fernández KM, Ramos Z, Francis-Malavé AM, Bloom J, Dharmawardhane S, Hernández E. Synthesis, anti-cancer and anti-migratory evaluation of 3,6 dibromocarbazole and 5-bromoindole derivatives. Molecules. 2019;24(15):2686.

Luis Rivera

Luis Rivera, Predoctoral Fellow

Luis Rivera is a predoctoral fellow in the Section on Behavioral Neurocircuitry and Cellular Plasticity. Luis graduated from the University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras Campus, in 2014 with a B.S. in chemistry. He is currently studying how 4R-cembranoid, a compound found in tobacco leaf, positively modulates the alpha7 nicotinic acetylcholine receptor allosterically using electrophysiology in vitro. In addition, he is also examining how this modulation ameliorates inflammatory pain-related behaviors in vivo. He can be reached at luis.rivera2@nih.gov

Sudhuman Singh

Sudhuman Singh, Ph.D., Visiting Postdoctoral Fellow

Sudhuman Singh, Ph.D., is a visiting postdoctoral fellow in the Section on Behavioral Neurocircuitry and Cellular Plasticity. He is interested in understanding the neural mechanisms underlying behavioral outputs and has trained in multidisciplinary research fields in neuroscience, including sleep, reinforcement learning, and pain. While at the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, Sudhuman is delineating the neural circuitry involved in pain modulation. He is passionate about science, and his motivation is to serve humanity through his research knowledge and life experiences. He can be reached at sudhuman.singh@nih.gov or 301-594-2477.

Omar Soler-Cedena

Omar Soler-Cedeno, Ph.D., Postdoctoral Fellow

Omar Soler-Cedeno, Ph.D., is a National Institute of General Medical Sciences Postdoctoral Research Associate Training (PRAT) Program fellow in the Section on Behavioral Neurocircuitry and Cellular Plasticity. Omar earned his Ph.D. at the Ponce Health Sciences University in the laboratory of James T. Porter, where he studied the ventral hippocampus and prefrontal cortex connectivity using animal models of post-traumatic stress disorder and exposure therapy. His long-term goal is to become an independent investigator and establish a research program that will combine state-of-the-art neurocircuitry tools and behavioral approaches to study chronic pain and mental health comorbidity. He currently combines ex vivo and in vivo approaches to study the synaptic dynamics of the parabrachial nucleus-to-central amygdala ascending pathway using rodent models of neuropathic and inflammatory pain. He can be reached at omar.soler-cedeno@nih.gov or at 301-594-2477.

Jeitzel Rodriguez Torres

Jeitzel Torres, Postbaccalaureate Fellow

Jeitzel Torres is a postbaccalaureate fellow in the Section on Behavioral Neurocircuitry and Cellular Plasticity. Jeitzel graduated from the University of Puerto Rico, Mayagüez Campus, in 2020 with a B.S. in biology. Jeitzel is interested in studying pain at the behavioral and circuit levels using mouse models, with the goal of obtaining a M.D. or M.D./Ph.D. Also, she would like to assess lateralization of these circuits and compare female and male data. Currently, Jeitzel is working on determining the function of the parabrachial-central amygdala pathway in pain-related behaviors in the context of injury. She can be reached at jeitzel.torres-rodriguez@nih.gov.

Torri Wilson

Torri Wilson, Lab Manager and Biologist

Torri Wilson is lab manager and biologist in the Section on Behavioral Neurocircuitry and Cellular Plasticity. Torri joined the lab in April 2014. She graduated from the Virginia State University in Petersburg in 1995 with a B.S. in animal sciences. Torri has extensive research experience as an animal biologist and is interested in expanding her knowledge of the amygdala and its role in modulating pain. While in the lab, Torri received the Director’s Merit Award for exemplary performance in the completion of the experiments that demonstrated the dual and opposite function of the central amygdala in pain. Torri has a passion for conducting surgeries and behavioral testing and assists with animal colony maintenance and laboratory management. Torri is currently working on parabrachial-central amygdala intersectional studies in the lab.

Research Publications:

Wilson TD, Valdivia S, Khan A, Ahn H-S, Adke AP, Gonzalez SM, Sugimura YK, Carrasquillo Y. Dual and opposing functions of the central amygdala in the modulation of pain. Cell Reports. 2019;29(2):332-346.

Adke AP, Khan A, Ahn H-S, Becker JJ, Wilson TD, Valdivia S, Sugimura YK, Gonzalez SM, Carrasquillo Y. Cell-type specificity of neuronal excitability and morphology in the central amygdala. eNeuro. 2021;8(1):ENEURO.0402-20-2020.