Benjamin White, Ph.D.

Senior Investigator

Section on Neural Function, Laboratory of Molecular Biology


John Edward Porter Neuroscience Research Center (Building 35), Room 1B1012
35 Convent Drive
Bethesda, MD 20814


Research Topics

While considerable progress has been made in understanding the molecular and cellular foundations of nervous system function, much less is known about the integrative processes that give rise to behavior. This situation is rapidly changing with the development of increasingly refined tools for monitoring and manipulating nervous system activity. Transgenes that can be selectively expressed in subsets of neurons, and whose products alter electrical or synaptic activity, are increasingly exploited to map neuronal circuits in the fruit fly, Drosophila melanogaster. These efforts are supported by targeting techniques that afford reproducible, cell-type specific, and temporally restricted, expression of transgenes. Using these techniques in combination, it is now routinely possible turn on or off very specific subsets of neurons in freely behaving flies.
My laboratory is actively engaged in generating tools for the identification and analysis of neuronal circuits. We have developed techniques for the constitutive suppression (White et. al., 2001) and enhancement of neuronal excitability (Luan, Lemon et al., 2006; Nitabach et al. 2006), as well as a tool for acutely activating neurons in response to small temperature shifts (Peabody et al.,2009). We have also developed general methods for targeting genetic manipulations to cell types of interest. These include the Split Gal4 system (Luan et al.,2006), which permits refined targeting of transgenes to small subsets of neurons, and the T2A-Gal4 In-Frame-Fusion method (Diao and White, 2012), which can target neurons that express a given gene of interest.
We are applying these methods to map the neuronal circuit underlying wing expansion, a hormonally-governed process that must be coordinated with environmental conditions. The mechanisms by which extrinsic and intrinsic factors modulate behavioral decisions are naturally open to investigation in this system and our goal is to understand how both internal and external cues are processed to produce specific motor outputs. Because wing expansion is innate, its circuitry also must be laid down during development and identifying the developmental genes that specify this circuitry is a further goal of the research conducted in my laboratory.


Dr. White heads the Section on Neural Function at NIMH. He received a B.A. in Physics and Mathematics from the University of Oregon (Honors College) and a Ph.D. in the Neural Sciences from Washington University in St. Louis. His graduate research and subsequent postdoctoral work at Yale University focused on mechanisms of ion channel gating and modulation. Shortly before he joined NIMH in 2002, his interests began to shift to using ion channels to manipulate neurons to investigate the brain substrates of behavior. Since coming to NIMH his laboratory has developed genetic tools for activating and suppressing targeted neurons in the fruitfly, Drosophila melanogaster, and sought to apply these tools to elucidate the neural circuit governing a developmentally essential behavioral program. This program, which governs the expansion of the wings at the end of metamorphosis, provides a simple paradigm for understanding how hormonal and environmental factors act to recruit motor patterns and assemble behavioral sequences. Because flies can choose when to expand their wings based on their environmental circumstances, this behavioral paradigm is also ideal for studying decision-making, the most fundamental aspect of behavioral integration.

Selected Publications

  1. Luan H, Diao F, Peabody NC, White BH. Command and compensation in a neuromodulatory decision network. J Neurosci. 2012;32(3):880-9.

  2. Diao F, Mena W, Shi J, Park D, Diao F, Taghert P, Ewer J, White BH. The Splice Isoforms of the Drosophila Ecdysis Triggering Hormone Receptor Have Developmentally Distinct Roles. Genetics. 2016;202(1):175-89.

  3. White BH, Ewer J. Neural and hormonal control of postecdysial behaviors in insects. Annu Rev Entomol. 2014;59:363-81.

  4. White BH. What genetic model organisms offer the study of behavior and neural circuits. J Neurogenet. 2016;30(2):54-61.

  5. Dolan MJ, Luan H, Shropshire WC, Sutcliffe B, Cocanougher B, Scott RL, Frechter S, Zlatic M, Jefferis GSXE, White BH. Facilitating Neuron-Specific Genetic Manipulations in <i>Drosophila melanogaster</i> Using a Split GAL4 Repressor. Genetics. 2017;206(2):775-784.

This page was last updated on June 20th, 2014