Division of Intramural Research
Section on Sensory Cells and Circuits
Alexander (Alex) Chesler, Ph.D., heads the Section on Sensory Cells and Circuits. This lab is interested in how sensory input is detected and processed by the brain to evoke specific behaviors. Our work focuses on identifying peripheral somatosensory neurons tuned to specific types of stimuli, the molecules they use for transduction, and the neural circuits that they activate. Through our research we seek to understand the basis by which some stimuli are perceived as innocuous while others are perceived as noxious and how these distinctions are modulated by physiological state or prior experience. The hope is that improving our knowledge of these basic mechanisms will be useful in developing new therapeutic approaches for treating acute and chronic pain. Our lab uses mouse genetics, in vitro and in vivo electrophysiology, in vivo two-photon imaging, and behavior to study how sensory stimuli are detected and encoded. Together, these approaches help us to better understand the importance of specific molecules for the responses of defined classes of sensory neurons and to map neural pathways for touch and pain in the brain. In parallel, we have identified a cohort of patients with a rare inherited disorder affecting mechanosenstion due to damaging mutations in the gene PIEZO2. Studying these patients helped define the role of this particular gene in human mechanosensation and allowed us to probe basic questions about the role select sensory inputs play in perception. Most importantly, working with these patients allows us to ask questions about human experience that, by definition, are impossible to answer using animal models. We are now positioned to take what we learn from these patients to guide our studies in mice and vice versa.
Dr. Chesler received his degrees from Bard College (B.A., 1995) and Columbia University (Ph.D., 2005). His graduate study, in the laboratory of Dr. Stuart Firestein, was focused on the function and development of olfactory sensory neurons. He did his postdoctoral training in the laboratory of Dr. David Julius at the University of California, San Francisco, where he combined physiological, anatomical, and behavioral approaches to study the pharmacology of somatosensory neurons. He was recruited to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) intramural pain program in 2013 as a Stadtman Investigator and became a senior investigator in 2020 with joint appointments in the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health and the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. His laboratory employs multidisciplinary approaches to study how sensory stimuli, such as temperature, touch, and environmental irritants, are detected and encoded by the somatosensory system in mice and humans. His research seeks to uncover the basis by which some stimuli are perceived as innocuous while others are perceived as noxious and how these distinctions are modulated by physiological state or prior experience. The hope is that improving our knowledge of these basic mechanisms will be useful in developing new therapeutic approaches for treating acute and chronic pain. Among his achievements within the intramural program, Dr. Chesler has received two DDIR (Deputy Director of Intramural Research) Innovation Awards for his work on pain, a Bench-to-Bedside award focused on the use of natural products to treat mechanical allodynia, an NIH HEAL (Helping to End Addiction Long-termSM)-initiative funded collaboration with NCATs to discover new treatments for chronic pain, and has helped to establish the NIH Pain Research Center in the NIH Clinical Center.
Rakshita Balaji, Postbaccalaureate Fellow
Rakshita Balaji is a postbac IRTA research fellow in the Section on Sensory Cells and Circuits. In 2023, Rakshita earned a B.S. in cellular, molecular, and physiological neuroscience and high honors in biology from the University of Maryland College Park (UMCP). While at UMCP, Rakshita conducted research in the lab of Dr. Melissa Caras, where she studied auditory perceptual learning in Mongolian gerbils and defended her senior thesis. Previously, she was an intern in the Keller Laboratory of Sensory Perception at the University of Maryland, Baltimore, School of Medicine, where she worked under Dr. Jason Alipio to investigate the effect of perinatal fentanyl exposure on somatosensory development in mice. Broadly, Rakshita is interested in mapping neural circuits that support sensory perception using interdisciplinary approaches in systems neuroscience. Aside from research, Rakshita enjoys teaching and participating in science outreach. She plans to pursue a Ph.D. in neuroscience.
Nima Ghitani, Ph.D., Postdoctoral Fellow
Nima Ghitani, Ph.D., is a postdoc fellow in the Section on Sensory Cells and Circuits. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 301-443-7388.
Raíza Rafael-Bonomo Hardy, Ph.D., Postdoctoral Fellow
Raíza Rafael-Bonomo Hardy is a postdoctoral fellow in the Section on Sensory Cells and Circuits. She graduated from the Federal University of Sao Paulo in 2014 with a B.S. in biomedical sciences. She then obtained her M.S. in cell and molecular biology from Illinois Institute of Technology in 2016. Raíza earned her Ph.D. in cell and molecular physiology from Loyola University Chicago (2021). Her Ph.D. dissertation aimed at understanding how gut microbiome dysbiosis in obesity could be linked to neuropathy and neuropathic pain. Raíza joined the Chesler lab in the fall of 2021, and she is currently working on the role of Piezo2 in proprioception and dexterous behavior. Her work is supported by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke Competitive Fellowship Award. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Monessha Jayabalan, Postbaccalaureate Fellow
Monessha Jayabalan is a postbac IRTA research fellow in the Section on Sensory Cells and Circuits. Monessha graduated with a B.S. from Allegheny College with a major in neuroscience and a minor in economics. She then received her M.S. from American University in biotechnology, with a specialization in drug design and discovery. She is currently working on a project focused on using behavioral assays and circuit manipulation to understand the descending modulation of pain by predator threats. She hopes to go on to pursue a Ph.D. in neuroscience.
Ruby Lam, Predoctoral Fellow
Ruby Lam, B.S., is a predoctoral fellow in the section on Sensory Cells and Circuits and a graduate student in the Brown Graduation Partnership Program. She holds a degree from Emory University (B.S. in neuroscience and behavior biology, predictive health 2014). She joined the lab in 2017 after postbaccalaureate work in Dr. Shih-Chieh Lin's lab, where Ruby studied basal forebrain circuitry. She is currently studying molecules and neurons underlying touch. Broadly, she is interested in understanding the components necessary for creating adequate sensory perceptions. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 301-594-3296.
Donald Iain MacDonald, Ph.D., Visiting Postdoctoral Fellow
Donald Iain MacDonald, Ph.D., is a visiting postdoctoral fellow in the Section on Sensory Cells and Circuits. He graduated from the University of Oxford in 2015 with a B.A. in cell and systems biology, and then earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience from University College London in 2020, supervised by Professor John Wood. His doctoral research used in vivo imaging to explore nociceptor function in different pain states. In 2020, he was a postdoctoral scientist at the University of Zurich in Professor Hanns Ulrich Zeilhofer's lab, where he worked on spinal serotonin signaling. He came to the National Institutes of Health in 2021 and is currently investigating the neuropeptide and circuit mechanisms that control pain and its modulation in the brain. He is broadly interested in neuroethology and linking the function of molecules with behavior. His work is supported by an EMBO Postdoctoral Fellowship and a Branco Weiss Fellowship. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Maximilian Nagel, Ph.D., Visiting Postdoctoral Fellow
Max Nagel, Ph.D., is a visiting postdoc fellow in the Section on Sensory Cells and Circuits. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 301-435-5517.
Caroline Pierotti, Postbaccalaureate Fellow
Caroline Pierotti is a postbaccalaureate fellow in the Section on Sensory Cells and Circuits. She graduated from Oberlin College in 2022 with a major in neuroscience and minors in Hispanic studies and chemistry. Caroline is currently contributing to projects investigating the role of Piezo2 in proprioception and gentle touch. After completing her time at NIH, she plans to obtain a Ph.D. in neuroscience.
Jonathan Seaman, B.S., M.Sc., Predoctoral Fellow
Jonathan Seaman, B.S., M.Sc., is a predoctoral fellow in the Section on Sensory Cells and Circuits, as well as a graduate student through the Johns Hopkins Graduate Partnership Program. In 2018, Jonathan obtained a bachelor’s degree in physiology and neuroscience from the University of California San Diego. Jonathan completed his master’s degree in neuroscience in 2019 under Dr. Liam Browne; his work explored the effect of stimulating specific peripheral sensory populations to avoidance behaviors. In 2021, he joined the Chesler lab, where he is currently investigating the participation of thalamic populations in pain perception and behaviors. He is generally interested in how pain is encoded throughout the brain and how affective and spatial information is integrated. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Marcin Szczot, Ph.D., Visiting Postdoctoral Fellow
Marcin Szczot, Ph.D., is a visiting postdoc fellow in the Section on Sensory Cells and Circuits. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 301-496-8129.
Maria Anaya, Postbac IRTA
Arnab Barik, Ph.D., Postdoctoral Fellow
Marek Brodzki, Special Volunteer
Colin Burnes, Postbac IRTA
Taylor Gordon, Postbac IRTA (2017-2018)
Eileen Nguyen, Postbac IRTA (2014-2016)
Alec Nickolls, Ph.D., Postdoctoral Fellow
Alec Nickolls, Ph.D., was a postdoc fellow in the Section on Sensory Cells and Circuits.
Jennifer Osborne, Post baccalaureate Fellow
Jennifer Osborne, B.S., was a post baccalaureate fellow in the Section on Sensory Cells and Circuits.
Martin Rasmussen, Graduate Student
Mathew Seltzer, Postbac IRTA
Philina Yee, Postbac IRTA
Sarah Shnayder, B.S., Post baccalaureate Fellow
Sarah Shnayder, B.S., was a post baccalaureate fellow in the Section on Sensory Cells and Circuits.
- Case LK, Liljencrantz J, Madian N, Necaise A, Tubbs J, McCall M, Bradson ML, Szczot M, Pitcher MH, Ghitani N, Frangos E, Cole J, Bharucha-Goebel D, Saade D, Ogata T, Donkervoort S, Foley AR, Bönnemann CG, Olausson H, Bushnell MC, Chesler AT. Innocuous pressure sensation requires A-type afferents but not functional PIEZO2 channels in humans. Nature Communications. 2021;12(1):657.
- von Buchholtz LJ, Ghitani N, Lam RM, Licholai JA, Chesler AT, et al. Decoding cellular mechanisms for mechanosensory discrimination. Neuron. 2021;109(2):285-298.
- Romero LO, Caires R, Nickolls AR, Chesler AT, et al. A dietary fatty acid counteracts neuronal mechanical sensitization. Nature Communications. 2020;11(1):2997.
- Marshall KL, Saade D, Ghitani N, Coombs AM, Szczot M, Keller J, Ogata T, Daou I, Stowers LT, Bönnemann CG, Chesler AT, et al. Nature. 2020;588(7837):290-295.
- Nickolls AR, Lee MM, Espinoza DF, Szczot M, Lam R, Nguyen MQ, Ryba NJ, Ward ME, Zou J, Wang Q, Beers J, Solinski HJ, Hoon MA, AlJanahi AA, Johnson KR, Chesler AT, et al. Transcriptional programming of human mechanosensory neuron subtypes. Cell Reports. 2020;30(3):932-946.
- Wlaschin JJ, Gluski JM, Nguyen E, Silberberg H, Thompson JH, Chesler AT, et al. Dual leucine zipper kinase is required for mechanical allodynia and microgliosis after nerve injury. eLife. 2018;7:e33910.
- Barik A, Thompson JH, Seltzer M, Ghitani N, Chesler AT. A brainstem-spinal circuit controlling nocifensive behavior. Neuron. 2018;100(6):1491-1503.
- Szczot M, Liljencrantz J, Ghitani N, Barik A, Lam R, Thompson JH, Bharucha-Goebel, Saade D, Necaise A, Donkervoort S, Foley AR, Gordon T, Case L, Bushnell MC, Bönnemann CG, Chesler AT. PIEZO2 mediates injury-induced tactile pain in mice and humans. Science Translational Medicine. 2018;10(462), eaat9892.
- Szczot M, Pogorzala LA, Solinski HJ, Young L, Yee P, Le Pichon CE, Chesler AT, et al. Cell-type-specific splicing of Piezo2 regulates mechanotransduction. Cell Reports. 2017;21(10)2760-2771.
- Ghitani N, Barik A, Szczot M, Thompson JH, Li C, Le Pichon CE, Krashes MJ, Chesler AT. Specialized mechanosensory nociceptors mediating rapid responses to hair pull. Neuron. 2017;95(4):944-954.
- Chesler AT, Szczot M, Bharucha-Goebel D, et al. The role of PIEZO2 in human mechanosensation. The New England Journal of Medicine. 2016;375(14):1355-1364.