Harold Antony Burgess, Ph.D.

Senior Investigator

Section on Behavioral Neurogenetics


NIHBC 06B 3B308



Research Topics

We study how neuronal circuits in larval zebrafish produce appropriate motor responses under diverse environmental contexts. Locomotor behavior in zebrafish larvae is controlled by neuronal circuits that are established through genetic interactions during development. We aim to identify genes and neurons that are required for the construction and function of the brainstem circuits underlying specific behaviors. Neuronal circuits situated in the brainstem form the core of the locomotor control network in vertebrates and are responsible for balance, posture, motor control, and arousal. Accordingly, many neurological disorders stem from abnormal formation or function of brainstem circuits. Insights into the function of brainstem circuits in health and disease have come from genetic manipulation of neurons in zebrafish larvae, in combination with computational analysis of behavior.

Several unique features of the zebrafish model system facilitate analysis of the neuronal basis of??vertebrate behavior. The larval zebrafish brain exhibits the basic architecture of the vertebrate brain but is much less complex than the mammalian brain. The optical clarity of the embryo facilitates visualization of individual neurons and their manipulation with genetic techniques. Behavior in larvae is innate and therefore exhibits minimal variability between fish. Subtle alterations in behavior can therefore be robustly scored, making it possible to assess quickly the contribution of identified neurons to a variety of motor behaviors. We use two major behavioral paradigms to investigate the neuronal basis of vertebrate behavior: modulation of the acoustic startle response by prepulse inhibition and modulation of the locomotor repertoire during a phototaxis-based navigational task. In addition, we are developing a suite of genetic tools and behavioral assays to probe the nexus between neuronal function and behavior at single-cell resolution.


Dr. Harold Burgess received his B.S. from the University of Melbourne, Australia and his Ph.D. from the Weizmann Institute of Science, Israel studying molecular interactions underlying cortical development. He did postdoctoral training with Dr. Michael Granato at the University of Pennsylvania, where he developed computational tools for high throughput analysis of behavior in larval zebrafish. Dr. Burgess joined NICHD as an investigator in 2008 and became a tenured Senior Investigator in 2015. His laboratory now combines genetic and imaging techniques to study neural circuits required for sensory guided behavior in zebrafish.

Selected Publications

  1. Bhandiwad AA, Chu NC, Semenova SA, Holmes GA, Burgess HA. A cerebellar-prepontine circuit for tonic immobility triggered by an inescapable threat. Sci Adv. 2022;8(39):eabo0549.
  2. Horstick EJ, Bayleyen Y, Burgess HA. Molecular and cellular determinants of motor asymmetry in zebrafish. Nat Commun. 2020;11(1):1170.
  3. Marquart GD, Tabor KM, Bergeron SA, Briggman KL, Burgess HA. Prepontine non-giant neurons drive flexible escape behavior in zebrafish. PLoS Biol. 2019;17(10):e3000480.
  4. Tabor KM, Marquart GD, Hurt C, Smith TS, Geoca AK, Bhandiwad AA, Subedi A, Sinclair JL, Rose HM, Polys NF, Burgess HA. Brain-wide cellular resolution imaging of Cre transgenic zebrafish lines for functional circuit-mapping. Elife. 2019;8.
  5. Tabor KM, Smith TS, Brown M, Bergeron SA, Briggman KL, Burgess HA. Presynaptic Inhibition Selectively Gates Auditory Transmission to the Brainstem Startle Circuit. Curr Biol. 2018;28(16):2527-2535.e8.

Related Scientific Focus Areas

This page was last updated on Friday, November 10, 2023