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Heads of Laboratories

Head shot of Cori Bargmann
Cori Bargmann, Ph.D.
Investigator, Howard Hughes Medical Institute
Torsten N. Wiesel Professor
Lulu and Anthony Wang Laboratory of Neural Circuits and Behavior

Genes, the environment, and experience interact to shape an animal’s behavior. Caenorhabditis elegans, a worm with just 302 neurons, shows considerable sophistication in its behaviors, and its defined neuronal wiring and genetic accessibility make it an ideal subject in which to study these interactions. Using C. elegans as a model, Dr. Bargmann’s laboratory characterizes genes and neural pathways that allow the nervous system to generate flexible behaviors.

How do genes and the environment interact to generate a variety of behaviors? How are behavioral decisions modified by context and experience? The Bargmann lab is studying the relationships between genes, experience, the nervous system, and behavior in the nematode C. elegans. C. elegans has a nervous system that consists of just 302 neurons with reproducible functions, morphologies, and synaptic connections. Despite this simplicity, many of the genes and signaling mechanisms used in the nematode nervous system are similar to those of mammals. The ability to manipulate the activity of individual genes and neurons in C. elegans makes it possible to determine how neural circuits develop and function.

C. elegans’s most complex behaviors occur in response to smell, and these are at the heart of the lab’s research. The animal can sense hundreds of different odors, discriminate among them, and generate reactions that are appropriate to the odor cue. These behaviors can be traced from molecules, to neurons, to circuits, to behavioral decisions. In C. elegans, as in other animals, odors are detected by G protein coupled odorant receptors on specialized sensory neurons. The odors that activate one sensory neuron regulate a behavioral output such as attraction or avoidance. The lab studies the pathways from sensory input to behavioral output by quantitative analysis of behavior under well-defined conditions, genetic manipulation of animals or individual neuronal cells, and calcium imaging from neurons in living animals.

Dr. Bargmann is also investigating how much flexibility is present in a simple nervous system. For example, C. elegans is capable of learning the odors of different bacteria and avoiding those that previously made it ill. These learned olfactory behaviors are associated with neurochemical changes that lead to rapid behavioral remodeling.

Another interest of the Bargmann laboratory is how genetic variation between individuals can cause them to behave differently from one another. In C. elegans, a single gene determines whether animals prefer to eat alone or in social groups. This gene encodes a neuropeptide receptor, a modulator that integrates multiple sensory inputs to generate coordinated behaviors. A current focus of Dr. Bargmann’s research is on learning how modulatory systems, like this neuropeptide receptor, affect the flow of information between neurons.


B.S. in biochemistry, 1981
University of Georgia

Ph.D. in cancer biology, 1987
Massachusetts Institute of Technology


Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1987–1991


Assistant Professor, 1991–1996
Associate Professor, 1996–1998
Professor, 1998–2004
University of California, San Francisco

Professor, 2004–
Co-director, Shelby White and Leon Levy Center for
     Mind, Brain and Behavior, 2005–2016
Co-director, Kavli Neural Systems Institute, 2015–2016
The Rockefeller University

Investigator, 1995–
Howard Hughes Medical Institute


Kemali International Prize, 2004

Richard Lounsbery Award, 2009

Dart/NYU Biotechnology Achievement Award, 2012

Kavli Prize, 2012

Breakthrough Prize, 2013

Benjamin Franklin Medal, 2015

Edward M. Scolnick Prize, 2016


National Academy of Sciences
American Academy of Arts and Sciences
American Philosophical Society
Fellow, American Association for the Advancement of Science


Gordus, A. et al. Feedback from network states generates variability in a probabilistic olfactory circuit. Cell 161, 215–227 (2015).

Flavell, S.W. et al. Serotonin and the neuropeptide PDF initiate and extend opposing behavioral states in C. elegans. Cell 154, 1023–1035 (2013).

Garrison, J.L. et al. Oxytocin/vasopressin-related peptides have an ancient role in reproductive behavior. Science 338, 540–543 (2012).

Bendesky, A. et al. Catecholamine receptor polymorphisms affect decision-making in C. elegans. Nature 472, 313–318 (2011).

Macosko, E.Z. et al. A hub-and-spoke circuit derives pheromone attraction and social behaviour in C. elegans. Nature 458, 1171–1175 (2009).

Dr. Bargmann is a faculty member in the David Rockefeller Graduate Program and the Tri-Institutional M.D.-Ph.D. Program