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Transforming the understanding
and treatment of mental illnesses.

Celebrating 75 Years! Learn More >>

Photo of Dr. Mario Penzo  Chief of the 'Unit on the Neurobiology of Affective Memory' at NIMH.

Mario Penzo, Ph.D.

Section on the Neural Circuits of Emotion and Motivation

Research Topics

Our mission is to identify the molecular, cellular, and neural circuit mechanisms underlying emotional and motivated behaviors. To fulfill this mission, our laboratory implements a multidisciplinary approach that includes behavioral assays, as well as cutting edge technologies for monitoring and manipulating the activity of defined neuronal populations in mice.

Current research efforts are centered on investigating the contributions of the dorsal midline thalamus to aversive and reward-seeking behaviors. For this, we use in vivo calcium imaging techniques in conjunction with optogenetic and chemogenetic approaches while animals perform appetitive and defensive behavioral tasks. In addition, our laboratory uses patch-clamp electrophysiology in acute brain slices, along with pharmacological and genetic tools to investigate the cellular and molecular mechanisms that underlie behavior.


Dr. Penzo obtained his Ph.D. at Albert Einstein College of Medicine with support from an NRSA training grant. Under the mentorship of Dr. Jose Luis Peña he completed his dissertation on the endocannabinoid-mediated modulation of synaptic transmission in the avian auditory midbrain. Next, he became a postdoctoral fellow in the laboratory of Dr. Bo Li at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory where he studied the synaptic mechanisms controlling fear memory and received the Harvey L. Karp Discovery Award. Dr. Penzo joined the National Institute of Mental Health in the Fall of 2015.

Selected Publications

Ma J, du Hoffmann J, Kindel M, Beas BS, Chudasama Y, Penzo MA (2021). Divergent projections of the paraventricular nucleus of the thalamus mediate the selection of passive and active defensive behaviors. Nat Neurosci 24, 1429-1440. [Pubmed Link ]

Penzo MA, Gao C (2021). The paraventricular nucleus of the thalamus: an integrative node underlying homeostatic behavior. Trends Neurosci 44, 538-549. [Pubmed Link ]

Sofia Beas B, Gu X, Leng Y, Koita O, Rodriguez-Gonzalez S, Kindel M, Matikainen-Ankney BA, Larsen RS, Kravitz AV, Hoon MA, Penzo MA (2020). A ventrolateral medulla-midline thalamic circuit for hypoglycemic feeding. Nat Commun 11, 6218. [Pubmed Link ]

Gao C, Leng Y, Ma J, Rooke V, Rodriguez-Gonzalez S, Ramakrishnan C, Deisseroth K, Penzo MA (2020). Two genetically, anatomically and functionally distinct cell types segregate across anteroposterior axis of paraventricular thalamus. Nat Neurosci 23, 217-228. [Pubmed Link ]

Beas BS, Wright BJ, Skirzewski M, Leng Y, Hyun JH, Koita O, Ringelberg N, Kwon HB, Buonanno A, Penzo MA (2018). The locus coeruleus drives disinhibition in the midline thalamus via a dopaminergic mechanism. Nat Neurosci 21, 963-973. [Pubmed Link ]

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