Skip to main content

Division of Intramural Research

Section on Sensory Cells and Circuits

DIR_Chesler

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.

Lab Chief

Chesler_Headshot

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. 

Lab Members

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 nima.ghitani@nih.gov or 301-443-7388.

Monessha Jayabalan 2022 headshot

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, Chesler Lab, DIR

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 ruby.lam@nih.gov or 301-594-3296.

View Ruby Lam's publications.

Donald McDonald, Chesler Lab, DIR

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 donaldiain.macdonald@nih.gov.

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 max.nagel@nih.gov or 301-435-5517.

Alec Nickolls 2022 headshot

Alec Nickolls, Ph.D., Postdoctoral Fellow

Alec Nickolls, Ph.D., is a postdoc fellow in the Section on Sensory Cells and Circuits. He can be reached at alec.nickolls@nih.gov or 301-594-5191.

Caroline Pierotti, DIR Chesler Lab

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.

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 marcin.szczot@nih.gov or 301-496-8129.

Lab Alumni

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)

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. 

Publications

Full list of publications for Alexander Chesler, Ph.D., on PubMed.

Videos

NIH SciBites: The Body's "Sixth Sense"