Marisela F. Morales, Ph.D.

Senior Investigator

Cellular Neurobiology Branch, Neuronal Networks Section


251 Bayview Boulevard
Baltimore, MD 21224


Research Topics

We are investigating the molecules, cells and neuronal pathways central to the neurobiology of drug addiction. Towards this end, we apply anatomical, cell molecular, cell biological and electrophysiological experimental approaches. Our research focus on two issues: what is the brain circuitry through which addictive drugs have their habit-forming actions, and what are the neuroadaptations in this circuitry that accompany the transition from recreational to compulsive drug-taking?

Accumulating evidence indicate that the ventral tegmental area (VTA) plays a role in goal-directed behavior and in reward processing to natural rewards and to several drugs of abuse. Therefore, we are investigating the neuronal properties and synaptic connectivity of the VTA to gain a better understanding of the interactions of the VTA with other brain structures in the processing and integration of information underlying behaviors associated with the neurobiology of drugs of addiction. Two populations of VTA neurons, dopaminergic neurons and GABAergic neurons, have been extensively characterized. Unexpectedly our work has recently shown that glutamatergic neurons are also present in the VTA. We are currently exploring the neuronal connectivity of VTA glutamatergic neurons and their participation in animal behavior.

Clinical observations and results from animal models indicate that behaviors associated with intake of drugs of abuse are affected by stress. The neuronal pathways, neurons, and neurotransmitters that mediate interactions between stress and drugs of abuse are not well characterized. In this regard, work from our laboratory has provided evidence indicating synaptic connectivity between the reward and the stress systems at the level of the VTA.

Selected Publications

  1. Qi J, Zhang S, Wang HL, Wang H, de Jesus Aceves Buendia J, Hoffman AF, Lupica CR, Seal RP, Morales M. A glutamatergic reward input from the dorsal raphe to ventral tegmental area dopamine neurons. Nat Commun. 2014;5:5390.

  2. Qi J, Zhang S, Wang HL, Barker DJ, Miranda-Barrientos J, Morales M. VTA glutamatergic inputs to nucleus accumbens drive aversion by acting on GABAergic interneurons. Nat Neurosci. 2016;19(5):725-33.

  3. Root DH, Mejias-Aponte CA, Zhang S, Wang HL, Hoffman AF, Lupica CR, Morales M. Single rodent mesohabenular axons release glutamate and GABA. Nat Neurosci. 2014;17(11):1543-51.

  4. Volkow ND, Morales M. The Brain on Drugs: From Reward to Addiction. Cell. 2015;162(4):712-25.

  5. Zhang S, Qi J, Li X, Wang HL, Britt JP, Hoffman AF, Bonci A, Lupica CR, Morales M. Dopaminergic and glutamatergic microdomains in a subset of rodent mesoaccumbens axons. Nat Neurosci. 2015;18(3):386-92.

Related Scientific Focus Areas

This page was last updated on August 31st, 2017