Nicholas Betley


B.A., Boston University 2002

Ph.D., Columbia Uninversity, 2010

Research Interests


The lab is interested in understanding how the brain processes information from the external world to facilitate appropriate behavioral responses that are necessary for survival. We study robust and essential behaviors such as feeding and drinking that are necessary for survival since the neural circuits that influence these behaviors are likely to be conserved.

Interacting with the environment to satisfy needs requires complex and flexible behavioral responses. The probability of an animal engaging in adaptive behaviors to resolve these survival needs is influenced by activity in neural circuits that respond to both internal cues and changes in the external environment. Dysfunction in these networks leads to improper decisions and has consequences for human health. Decoding the neural basis of survival behaviors and the circuitry that prioritizes signals of need will increase our understanding of how the brain guides behavior in a complex environment.

In our experiments, we are pursuing two complementary tracks:

One goal is to better understand how information coding hunger is integrated in the brain and how the motivated state of energy deficit modulates behavioral responses aimed at obtaining food. Starvation sensitive neurons (AGRP neurons) that are active during hunger provide a convenient entry point into the neural circuitry of feeding behavior.  Analogous to the way sensory neurons responding to odorant or light have served as an entry point to understanding how the brain processes olfactory or visual information, we are exploring how nutrient-sensing neurons signal the rest of the brain to influence consumption of food.

In addition, we are exploring the question of how internal sensory cues such as hunger induce cognitive changes that are known to influence the perception of and response to other survival stimuli such as fear, pain, sex and sleep. The balance between these activities is finely tuned and shifting this equilibrium underlies pathologies including obesity, anxiety and neuropathic pain. Conceptually, understanding how different survival needs interact provides the framework for understanding how the brain processes conflicting stimuli to guide behavior.

Selected Publications

Betley JN, Xu S, Cao ZF, Gong R, Magnus CJ, Yu Y, Sternson SM. 2015. Neurons for hunger and thirst transmit a negative-valence teaching signal. Nature 512 (7551):180-185.

Atasoy D, Betley JN, Li W, Su HH, Scheffer LK, Simpson JH, Fetter FD, Sternson SM. 2014. A Genetically specified connectomics approach applied to long-range feeding regulatory circuits. Nature Neuroscience 17(12): 1830-9.

Ashrafi S, Betley JN, Comer JD, Brenner-Morton S, Bar V, Shimoda Y, Watanabe K, Peles E, Jessell TM, Kaltschmidt JA. 2014. Neuronal Ig/Caspr recognition promotes the formation of axoaxonic synapses in mouse spinal cord. Neuron 81(1):120-9.

Betley JN, Cao ZF, Ritola KD, Sternson SM. 2013. Parallel, redundant circuit organization for homeostatic control of feeding behavior. Cell 155(6):1337-50.           

Sternson, SM, Betley JN, Cao ZF. 2013. Neural circuits and motivational processes for hunger. Curr Opin Neurobiol 23(3):353-60.                                               

Atasoy D, Betley JN, Su HH, Sternson SM. 2012. Deconstruction of a neural circuit for hunger. Nature 488(7410):172-7.

Betley JN, Sternson SM. 2011. Adeno-associated viral vectors for mapping, monitoring, and manipulating neural circuits. Human Gene Therapy 22(6):669-77.        

Betley JN, Wright CVE, Kawaguchi Y, Erdelyi F, Szabo G, Jessell TM, Kaltschmidt JA. 2009. Stringent specificity in the construction of a GABAergic presynaptic inhibitory circuit. Cell 139:161-174.                                                                  

Choo S, Heinrich B, Betley JN, Chen Z, Deshler JO. 2005. Evidence for common machinery utilized by the early and late RNA localization pathways in Xenopus oocytes. Developmental Biology 278(1):103-17.                                                        

Betley JN, Heinrich B, Vernos I, Sardet C, Prodon F, Deshler JO. 2004. Kinesin II mediates Vg1 mRNA transport in Xenopus oocytes. Current Biology 14(3):219-24.

Betley JN, Frith MC, Graber JH, Choo S, Deshler JO. 2002. A ubiquitous and conserved signal for RNA localization in chordates. Current Biology 12(20):1756-61.