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.
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 email@example.com or (301) 443-7388.
Ruby Lam, Graduate Student
Ruby Lam is a graduate student in the Section on Sensory Cells and Circuits. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (301) 594-3296.
Donald MacDonald, Ph.D., Postdoctoral Fellow
Donald MacDonald, Ph.D., is a postdoctoral fellow in the Section on Sensory Cells and Circuits. He can be reached at email@example.com or (301) 435.5517.
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.
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 email@example.com or (301) 594.5191.
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)
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.