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Donna Calu, PhD

Academic Title:

Assistant Professor

Primary Appointment:

Anatomy and Neurobiology



Phone (Primary):


Education and Training

I graduated from University of Maryland, College Park with BS in Biology. I completed my PhD at University of Maryland Baltimore School of Medicine (UMSOM/UMB), Program in Neuroscience, working with Geoffrey Schoenbaum to study the role of amygdala neural activity in attention and associative learning. As a postdoc in the laboratory of Yavin Shaham at the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), I used an optogenetic approach to examine the role of prefrontal cortex in driving palatable food relapse. I started my lab as an Early Independent Scientist at NIDA, building a research program investigating the behavioral and brain basis of addiction vulnerability. I moved back across town to UMSOM Department of Anatomy and Neurobiology in September of 2015. 
The Calu lab conducts behavioral and systems neuroscience studies to elucidate the brain systems driving individual differences in reward learning and motivation that predict addiction vulnerability. We probe amygdala, cortical and striatal brain circuitry, prior to drug experience, to determine how engagement of these brain pathways during learning relates to addiction vulnerability phenotypes. We also examine how these brain systems are changed by voluntary drug experience and dependence to drive drug seeking and drug taking. These preclinical studies may yield new biomarkers of addiction vulnerability and identify new prevention and diagnostic strategies for treatment of addiction.
For more about me and current lab peronnel see:



Lab website:

Research/Clinical Keywords

Reward, learning, motivation, attention, decision-making, addiction, obesity, individual differences, amygdala, insular cortex, striatum, dopamine, in vivo electrophysiology, optogenetics, chemogenetics, fiber photometry, dopamine sensing

Highlighted Publications

Full list of publications via PubMed

Keefer SE, Bacharach, SB, Kochli, DE, Chabot, JM, Calu, DJ. (2020) Effects of limited and extended Pavlovian training on devaluation sensitivity of sign-and goal-tracking rats. Front. Behav. Neurosci., 04 February 2020 |

Bacharach, SZ*, Nasser, HM*,Zlebnik, NE, Dantrassy, HM, Cheer, JF, Calu, DJ. (2018) Cannabinoid receptor-1 signaling contributions to sign-tracking and conditioned reinforcement in rats. Psychopharmacology doi: 10.1007/s00213-018-4993-6.

Nasser, HM, Lafferty, DL, Lesser, EN, Bacharach, SZ, Calu, DJ. (2017). Disconnection of basolateral amygdala and insular cortex disrupts conditioned approach in Pavlovian lever autoshaping. Neurobiology of Learning and Memory. 2017 Nov 21;147:35-45.

Nasser, HM*, Chen, YW*, Fiscella, KA, Calu, DJ. (2015) Individual variability in behavioral flexibility predicts sign-tracking tendency.Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience. Nov 3; published online.

Chen, YW, Fiscella, KA, Bacharach, SZ, Tanda, G, Shaham, Y, Calu, DJ. (2014) Effect of yohimbine on reinstatement of operant responding in rats is dependent on cue contingency but not food reward history. Addiction Biology. Epub ahead of print Jul 27, 2014.

Chen, YW, Fiscella, KA, Calu, DJ. (2014) Effect of cafeteria diet history on cue-, pellet-priming-, and stress-induced reinstatement of food seeking in female rats. PLoS One. Jul 15; 9(7):e102213.

Calu DJ, Kawa AB, Marchant NJ, Navarre BM, Henderson MJ, Chen B, Yau H-J, Bossert JM, Schoenbaum G, Deisseroth K, Harvey BK, Hope BT, Shaham Y. (2013) Optogenetic inhibition of dorsal medial prefrontal cortex attenuates stress-induced reinstatement of palatable food seeking in female rats. Journal of Neuroscience. 33(1):214-26.

Calu, DJ, Roesch, MA, Haney, RZ, Holland, P.C., Schoenbaum, G. (2010). Neural correlates of variations in event processing during learning in central nucleus of amygdala. Neuron. 68(5);991-1001.

Roesch MA, Calu DJ, Esber GR, Schoenbaum G. (2010) Neural correlates of variations in event processing during learning in basolateral amygdala. Journal of Neuroscience. 30(7):2464-71.

Calu, DJ*, Roesch MA*, and Schoenbaum G. (2007) Dopamine neurons encode the better option in rats deciding between differently delayed or sized rewards. Nature Neuroscience. 10(12):1615-24.

*Authors contributed equally to the work.

Additional Publication Citations

Research Interests

Behavioral and Systems Neuroscience aimed at elucidating the brain mechanisms underlying individual differences in reward learning, motivation, addiction vulnerability and neuropsychiatric disorders. 

We study the brain mechanisms underlying individual differences in natural reward learning, motivation, and behavioral flexibility. We combine classic and modern techniques to examine real-time neural activity in awake, behaving rats as they perform reward learning tasks. We manipulate neural activity to demonstrate a causal role for specific brain circuitry in driving motivated and flexible behaviors. We examine the possibility that competing brain systems drive individual differences in cognitive strategies used for reward learning, with the ultimate goal of understanding vulnerability to addiction and neuropsychiatric disease.

More project info here

Awards and Affiliations

2001-03  University of Maryland; Biology Academic Honors

2003-04  Research Assistant; Department of Molecular Pathology, Walter Reed Army

                  Institute of Research, Silver Spring, MD

2004-10  Graduate Research Assistant; University of Maryland School of Medicine,

                  Baltimore, MD

2007-10  National Research Service Award; National Institute of Mental Health

2010       PhD Thesis Project Award; University of Maryland Graduate Program in Life


2010       Top Junior Investigator Data Presentation; Winter Conference on Brain Research

2010-11  Postdoctoral Fellow; Intramural Research Training Award; NIH/NIDA/IRP,

                  Baltimore, MD

2011-15  Early Independent Scientist; NIH/NIDA/IRP, Baltimore MD

2011       Early Independent Scientist Position; National Institutes of Health; NIDA-IRP

2011       Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Course on Cell Biology of Addiction; Selected 

2013       Excellence in Scientific Research, Toni Shippenberg Fellow Award, NIDA-IRP

2013       Winter Conference in Brain Research Travel Fellowship, WCBR 2014

2015-      Assistant Professor, UMSOM; Research Collaborator, NIH/NIDA/IRP

2016       Outstanding Young Scientist, Maryland Science Center, Maryland Academy of Sciences 

2017       Nominated by UMSOM for Blavatnik National Awards for Young Scientist, Life Sciences Category

2019       PECASE: Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers

              Alumnus Award, University of Maryland Graduate Program in Life Sciences



Grants and Contracts

2011-2015      Early Independent Scientist, National Institute of Health, National Institute

                           on Drug Abuse Intramural Research Program

2017-2019      NARSAD Young Investigator Award, Brain and Behavior Research Foundation

2017-2020      McKnight Memory and Cognitive Disorders Award

2017-2023      R01 NIDA, 1R01DA043533-01A1, PECASE

In the News

Community Service

2012-15  Gifted and Talented Intern Program with Long Reach High School, Columbia, MD

2014       Lecture to disadvantaged and special education high school students; Winter

                 Conference on Brain Research School Outreach Program

                 Lecture to high school and college students; NIDA Summer Student Seminar

2015       Panel representative for Academia jobs; “Future of the PhD: Career Options,” NIDA

                 Post-bac Program

2016       Thesis committee member, Program in Neuroscience

                Qualifying Exam Committee member, Program in Neuroscience

                Advisory committee member, Program in Neuroscience

                Alternate member School of Medicine Council

                Interviewer for Medical School Admissions

                GPILS and OPS Awards Nomination review committee member

2017-       Qualifying Exam Committee member, Program in Neuroscience

               Program in Neuroscience Retreat Committee member

               Program in Neuroscience Seminar Committee member

               Chair of Neurobiology Seminar Series in the Department of Anatomy and Neurobiology

               Co-Chair Anatomy and Neurobiology Faculty Search Committee

               Interviewer for Medical School Admissions, 2017-2018 academic year

               Advisory committee member, Program in Neuroscience, 2017-2018 academic year

               Thesis committee member, Program in Neuroscience

               Program in Neuroscience Training Committee member

               Laboratory demonstration for NOVA Baltimore City Schools Fall Lab Tour

               Program in Neuroscience curriculum committee member

2018-       Laboratory demonstration for NOVA Baltimore City Schools Fall Lab Tour

present     Chair Program in Neuroscience Retreat

               Chair of Neurobiology Seminar Series for the Department of Anatomy and Neurobiology

               Interviewer for Medical School Admissions

               Program in Neuroscience (PIN) Training Committee member

               Program in Neuroscience curriculum committee member

               Thesis committee member, Program in Neuroscience

               PIN Qualifying Exam Committee member, Program in Neuroscience

               Advisory committee member, Program in Neuroscience

Professional Activity

Download CV for Mentoring, Teaching, and Invited Lectures

Peer Review Work                              

Ad-hoc reviewer: Scientific journals

Journal of Neuroscience (2010-present), F1000 Associate faculty post-publication review contributor (2010-11) Neuroscience (2010-date), Addiction Biology (2012-date), Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience (2015-present), Neuropsychopharmacology (2015-present), Behavioral Neuroscience (2014-2019), Behavioral Brain Research (2016), Scientific Reports (2017), Synapse (2017), Neuropharmacology (2017-present), Cell Reports (2017); Behavioral Processes (2018), Neurobiology of Learning and Memory (2018-present), Nature Communications (2018-present), Progress in Neuropsychopharmacology and Biological Psychiatry (2019), Physiology and Behavior (2019-present), Journal of Experimental Psychology: Animal Learning and Cognition (2019-present), eLife (2019-present)

Ad-hoc reviewer: Grant agencies

French National Research Agency (2013), Israel Science Foundation (2015), Marsden Fund, Royal Society of New Zealand (2016), Center on Compulsive Behaviors NIAAA/NIDA/NIMH IRP Study Section for Postdoctoral Fellowships

Ad-hoc reviewer: Annual meetings

Cosyne (2017)

Editorial Board: Journal of Neuroscience (Associate editor; 2018-present)


Lab Techniques and Equipment

  • Rodent behavioral models of learning, decision-making, addiction and stress
  • In vivo electrophysiology for neural recording, in awake, behaving rats
  • In vivo fiber photometry for dopamine sensing, in awake, behaving rats
  • Brain circuit manipulation via optogenetics and chemogenetics
  • Anatoimcal tracing and immunohistochemistry for idenfication of specific biomarkers in brain circuitry 

Links of Interest