Michael J. O'Donovan, M.D., Ph.D.

Senior Investigator

Developmental Neurobiology Section


Building 35, Room 3C-1014
35 Convent Drive
Bethesda, MD 20892-3700



Research Topics

Research in this section is concerned with the development and operation of circuits in the spinal cord. We are currently devoting most of our effort to understanding the organization of spinal circuitry involved in locomotion of the neonatal mouse. We are particularly interested in understanding the role of motoneurons in the operation of locomotor networks and the mechanisms responsible for the excitatory effects of motoneurons within the spinal cord.

We have also been using calcium and voltage-sensitive dye imaging to visualize the spatiotemporal patterns of neuronal activity associated with rhythmic locomotor-like bursting. This work has revealed the existence of a rostro-caudal 'wave' of excitation in the activation of rostral lumbar and sacral motoneurons during each cycle of rhythmic activity. We are currently using imaging the visualize the neuronal populations that are active during spinal network activity.

We are also using optogenetics to examine the role of motoneurons and other neuronal classes in locomotor rhythmogenesis and pattern formation.


Dr. O'Donovan received his M.D. from the University of Bristol, England in 1972 and his Ph.D. in neuroscience from the Sherrington School of Physiology, at St. Thomas' Hospital Medical School, London in 1978. He then came to the United States to do post-doctoral work at the NIH and then Yale University, where with Dr. Lynn Landmesser he became interested in the development of spinal networks. In 1982 he joined the faculty of the Department of Physiology and Biophysics at the University of Iowa. In 1988 he joined the Laboratory of Neural Control at the NINDS and in 1991 became chief of the Section on Developmental Neurobiology. His major research interest is the origin and function of spontaneous activity in developing spinal networks.

Selected Publications

  1. Falgairolle M, O'Donovan MJ. Pharmacological Investigation of Fluoro-Gold Entry into Spinal Neurons. PLoS One. 2015;10(6):e0131430.

  2. Pujala A, Blivis D, O'Donovan MJ. Interactions between Dorsal and Ventral Root Stimulation on the Generation of Locomotor-Like Activity in the Neonatal Mouse Spinal Cord. eNeuro. 2016;3(3).

  3. Etlin A, Finkel E, Mor Y, O'Donovan MJ, Anglister L, Lev-Tov A. Characterization of sacral interneurons that mediate activation of locomotor pattern generators by sacrocaudal afferent input. J Neurosci. 2013;33(2):734-47.

  4. Thirumalai V, Behrend RM, Birineni S, Liu W, Blivis D, O'Donovan MJ. Preservation of VGLUT1 synapses on ventral calbindin-immunoreactive interneurons and normal locomotor function in a mouse model of spinal muscular atrophy. J Neurophysiol. 2013;109(3):702-10.

  5. Yoshida Y, Yoshimi R, Yoshii H, Kim D, Dey A, Xiong H, Munasinghe J, Yazawa I, O'Donovan MJ, Maximova OA, Sharma S, Zhu J, Wang H, Morse HC 3rd, Ozato K. The transcription factor IRF8 activates integrin-mediated TGF-β signaling and promotes neuroinflammation. Immunity. 2014;40(2):187-98.

This page was last updated on January 22nd, 2014