Adjunct Assistant Professor
Education and Training
Dr. Thomas Heinbockel studied biology at the Philipps-University, Marburg, Germany. His studies of the brain started during his M.S. thesis work at the Max-Planck-Institute for Behavioral Physiology, Starnberg/Seewiesen, Germany. Dr. Heinbockel earned a Ph.D. in Neuroscience at the University of Arizona in Tucson. After graduating, he worked as a Research Associate at the Institute of Physiology, Otto-von-Guericke University in Magdeburg, Germany. Dr. Heinbockel presently serves as Professor and Interim Chair of the Department of Anatomy, Howard University College of Medicine. He holds an adjunct faculty position in both the Department of Physiology and the Department of Anatomy & Neurobiology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore, MD. Since he joined Howard University in 2004, he has been trusted with several leadership roles across campus. He is grounded in the education of students at all levels (undergraduate, graduate, postdoctoral and professional), research (Translational Medicine, Cell Biology, Neuroscience) and organizational leadership (Department, Graduate Program, College, University).
Broadly speaking, Dr. Heinbockel’s research is in the area of translational medicine, drug discovery and neuroscience. His research is aimed at elucidating organizational principles of neural systems in the brain using electrophysiological, pharmacological, optical, and anatomical methods. All his research projects involve students at different levels including undergraduate, graduate, professional and postdoctoral students. Dr. Heinbockel’s research program has been continuously funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the National Science Foundation (NSF) and private foundations since he started his faculty appointment at Howard University. His research involves collaborations with colleagues in his own department (especially junior ones), the college, and across Howard University as well as several other universities. He is actively engaged in collaborative research networks that include full membership of the DC-CFAR (District of Columbia Center for AIDS Research), the DC-IDDRC (District of Columbia Intellectual Developmental Disabilities Research Center) and the Global Consortium on Chemosensory Research.
Neuroscience, cellular and network mechanisms of brain function studied with electrophysiological, optical, anatomical, and pharmacological methods; neural signaling and synaptic transmission; drug discovery & development
- Heinbockel T, Bhatia-Dey N, Shields VDC (2021) Endocannabinoid-mediated neuromodulation in the main olfactory bulb at the interface of environmental stimuli and central neural processing. Eur J Neurosci, Online ahead of print. (Invited Paper, Special Issue: Cannabinoid Signaling in the Brain: New Vistas). PMID: 33724578
- Gerkin RC, Ohla K, Veldhuizen MG, et al. (2021) Recent smell loss is the best predictor of COVID-19 among individuals with recent respiratory symptoms. Chem Senses 46: bjaa081. Online ahead of print. PMCID: PMC7799216
- Parma V, Ohla K, Veldhuizen MG, et al. (2020) More than smell - COVID-19 is associated with severe impairment of smell, taste, and chemesthesis. Chem Senses 45:609-622. PMCID: PMC7337664
- Bhatia-Dey N, Heinbockel T (2020) Endocannabinoid mediated neuromodulation in the olfactory bulb: functional and therapeutic significance. Int J Mol Sci 21, 2850. PMCID: PMC7216281
- Koyama S, Heinbockel T (2020) The effects of essential oils and terpenes in relation to their routes of intake and application. Int J Mol Sci 21 (5), 1558. PMCID: PMC7084246
- Wang ZJ, Hu SS, Bradshaw HB, Sun L, Mackie K, Straiker A, Heinbockel T (2019) Cannabinoid receptor-mediated modulation of inhibitory inputs to mitral cells in the main olfactory bulb. J Neurophysiol 122:749-759. PMCID: PMC6734407
Shields VDC, May M, Heinbockel TK, Heinbockel T (2020) The nose knows: exposing elementary students to insects and the sense of smell. Annal Behav Neurosci, 3(1): 306-313.
Shields VDC, May M, Heinbockel TK, Heinbockel T (2020) Employing hands-on activities to understand reflex actions in the nervous system. Annal Behav Neurosci, 3(1): 298-305.
Shields VDC, May M, Heinbockel TK, Heinbockel T (2020) A hands-on activity to illustrate action potentials and neurotransmission. Annal Behav Neurosci, 3(1): 284-290.
Shields VDC, Dimitriades N, Heinbockel TK, Heinbockel T (2020) Picking your brain: understanding the structure and function of nerve cells and the brain. Annal Behav Neurosci, 3(1): 276-283.
Amaye IJ, Heinbockel T, Woods J, Wang ZJ, Martin-Caraballo M, Jackson-Ayotunde P (2018) 6 Hz active anticonvulsant fluorinated N-benzamide enaminones and their inhibitory neuronal activity. Int J Environ Res Public Health 15, 1784. PMCID: PMC6121254
Kanherkar RR, Getachew B, Ben-Sheetrit J, Verma S, Heinbockel T, Tizabi Y, Csoka AB (2018) The effect of citalopram on genome-wide DNA methylation of human cells. International Journal of Genomics, vol. 2018, Article ID 8929057, 12 pages. PMCID: PMC6083487
Getachew B, Hudson T, Heinbockel T, Csoka AB, Tizabi Y (2018) Protective effects of donepezil against alcohol-induced toxicity in cell culture: role of caspase-3. Neurotox Res 34(3):757-762. PMCID: PMC5991078
Zou L, Xue Y, Jones M, Heinbockel T, Ying M, Zhan X (2018) The effects of quinine on neurophysiological properties of dopaminergic neurons. Neurotox Res 34:62-73.
Wang ZJ, Tabakoff B, Levinson SR, Heinbockel T (2015) Inhibition of Nav1.7 channels by methyl eugenol as a mechanism underlying its antinociceptive and anesthetic actions. Acta Pharmacol Sin 36:791-799.
Wang ZJ, Sun L, Heinbockel T (2014) Resibufogenin and cinobufagin activate central neurons through an ouabain-like action. PLoS One 9(11): e113272. PMCID: PMC4242513
Wang ZJ, Levinson SR, Sun L, Heinbockel T (2014) Identification of both GABAA receptors and voltage-activated Na+ channels as molecular targets of anticonvulsant a-asarone. Front Pharmacol 5:40. PMCID: PMC3949418
Zhan X, Yin PB, Heinbockel T (2013) The basal forebrain modulates spontaneous activity of principal cells in the main olfactory bulb of anaesthetized mice. Front Neural Circuits 7: 00148.
Young JK, Heinbockel T, Gondre-Lewis MC (2013) Astrocyte fatty acid binding protein-7 is a marker for neurogenic niches in the adult rat brain. Hippocampus 23:1476-1483. PMCID: PMC3859315
Wang ZJ, Sun L, Heinbockel T (2012) Cannabinoid receptor-mediated regulation of neuronal activity and signaling in glomeruli of the main olfactory bulb. J Neurosci 32:8475-8479. PMCID: PMC6734407
Wang ZJ, Sun L, Peng W, Ma S, Zhu C, Fu F, Heinbockel T (2011) Ginseng derivative ocotillol enhances neuronal activity through increased glutamate release: a possible mechanism underlying increased spontaneous locomotor activity of mice. Neuroscience 195:1-8. PMCID: PMC3193848
Wang ZJ, Sun L, Jackson PL, Scott KR, Heinbockel T (2011) A substituted anilino enaminone acts as a novel positive allosteric modulator of GABAA receptors in the mouse brain. J Pharmacol Exp Ther 336: 916-924.
Reviews and Chapters:
Bhatia-Dey N, Heinbockel T (2020) Neurological and neuropsychiatric disorders in relation to olfactory dysfunction. In: Sino-Nasal and Olfactory System Disorders. Thomas Heinbockel & Balwant S. Gendeh (eds), London, UK: IntechOpen, ch. 7, 18 pp.
Heinbockel T, Gendeh BS (2020) Introductory chapter: dysfunction of the olfactory system and nasal disorders. In: Sino-Nasal and Olfactory System Disorders. Thomas Heinbockel & Balwant S. Gendeh (eds), London, UK: InTech Open Access Publisher, ch. 1, pp 1-7.
Heinbockel T, Csoka AB (2019) Introductory Chapter: The Chemical Basis of Neural Function and Dysfunction. Thomas Heinbockel & Antonei B. Csoka (eds.), Neurochemical Basis of Brain Function and Dysfunction, ISBN: 978-1-78985-999-7. London, United Kingdom: IntechOpen, pp. 1-9
Heinbockel T (2019) Understanding the olfactory system. Research Outreach 109: 18-21.
Shields VDC, Heinbockel T (2019) Introductory Chapter: Histological Microtechniques. Thomas Heinbockel & Vonnie D.C. Shields (eds.), Histology, ISBN: 978-953-51-6798-3. London, United Kingdom: IntechOpen, pp. 3-16
Harvey JD, Heinbockel T (2018) Neuromodulation of synaptic transmission in the main olfactory bulb. Int J Environ Res Public Health, 15 (10), 2194
Heinbockel T, Csoka AB (2018) Epigenetic effects of drugs of abuse. Int J Environ Res Public Health, 15 (10), 2098
Heinbockel T (2018) Introductory chapter: Organization and function of sensory nervous systems. In: Sensory Nervous System. Thomas Heinbockel (ed.), ISBN: 978-1-78923-359-9. London, United Kingdom: IntechOpen, pp. 1-9.
Wang ZJ, Heinbockel T (2018) Essential oils and their constituents targeting the GABAergic system and sodium channels as treatment of neurological diseases. Molecules, 23, 1061; pp. 1-24
Heinbockel T (2017) Introductory chapter: Mechanisms and function of synaptic plasticity. In: Synaptic Plasticity. Thomas Heinbockel (ed.), Rijeka, Croatia, InTech Publisher, 3-13
Heinbockel T, Wang ZJ, Brown EA, Austin PT (2016) Endocannabinoid signaling in neural circuits of the olfactory and limbic system. In: Cannabinoids in Health and Disease. Rosaria Meccariello and Rosanna Chianese (ed.), Rijeka, Croatia, InTech Publisher, ch. 2, pp. 11-37, ISBN 978-953-51-2429-0
Wang ZJ, Heinbockel T (2016) Ginsenosides as brain signaling molecules and potential cures for neurological and neurodegenerative diseases. In: Horizons in Neuroscience Research, vol 24. Costa A, Villalba E (eds), Nova Science Publishers, New York, ch. 4, pp. 83-100, ISBN: 978-1-63484-325-6
Heinbockel T, Wang ZJ (2016) Cellular mechanisms of action of drug abuse on olfactory neurons. Int J Environ Res Public Health, 13, 0005
Heinbockel T (2015) Anandamide is a fast retrograde signaling molecule in neural circuits. In: Endocannabinoids: Chemical Structure, Role in Physiological Processes and Therapeutic Effects. Garza T (ed), Series: Neuroscience Research Progress, Nova Science Publishers, New York, ch. 2, pp. 25-42, ISBN: 978-1-63483-642-5
Heinbockel T, Wang ZJ, Jackson-Ayotunde PL (2014) Allosteric modulation of GABAA receptors by an anilino enaminone in an olfactory center of the mouse brain. Pharmaceuticals 7, 1069-1090; (peer-reviewed)
Heinbockel T (2014) Neurochemical communication: The case of endocannabinoids. In: Neurochemistry. Thomas Heinbockel (ed), ISBN 978-953-51-1237-2, Rijeka, Croatia, InTech Open Access Publisher, ch. 6, p 179-198. Available from:
Heinbockel T, Wang ZJ (2014) Cannabinoid receptor- and metabotropic glutamate receptor-mediated signaling in neural circuits of the main olfactory bulb. In: Horizons in Neuroscience Research, vol 13. Costa A, Villalba E (eds), Nova Science Publishers, New York, ch. 2, pp. 37-62, ISBN: 978-1-62948-426-6
Heinbockel T, Shields VDC, Reisenman CE (2013) Glomerular interactions in olfactory processing channels of the antennal lobes. J Comp Physiol A 199:929-46. doi: 10.1007/s00359-013-0842-6. Epub 2013 Jul 28. (peer-reviewed)
Shields VDC, Heinbockel T (2012) Neurophysiological recording techniques applied to insect chemosensory systems. In: Zoology. Maria-Dolores Garcia (ed.), ISBN 978-953-51-0360-8, Rijeka, Croatia, Intech Open Access Publisher, chapter 7, pp. 123-162.
Heinbockel T (2012) Electrophysiological recording and imaging of neuronal signals in brain slices. In: Neuroscience. Thomas Heinbockel (ed.), ISBN 978-953-51-0617-3, Rijeka, Croatia, Intech Open Access Publisher, chapter 2, pp. 19-48.
Heinbockel T, Zhou Y (2021) Connectivity and Functional Specialization in the Brain. ISBN: 978-1-83962-797-2. London, United Kingdom: IntechOpen
Heinbockel T, Gendeh BS (eds) (2020) Sino-Nasal and Olfactory System Disorders. ISBN: 978-1-83880-951-5. London, United Kingdom: IntechOpen, 201 pages.
Heinbockel T, Csoka AB (eds) (2019) Neurochemical Basis of Brain Function and Dysfunction. ISBN: 978-1-78985-999-7. London, United Kingdom: IntechOpen, 166 pages.
Heinbockel T, Shields VDC (eds) (2019) Histology. ISBN: 978-1-78984-971-4. London, United Kingdom: IntechOpen, 135 pages.
Heinbockel T (ed) (2018) Sensory Nervous System. ISBN: 978-1-78923-359-9. London, United Kingdom: IntechOpen, 160 pages.
Heinbockel T (ed) (2017) Synaptic Plasticity. ISBN 978-953-51-3234-9. Rijeka, Croatia: IntechOpen, 220 pages.
Heinbockel T (ed) (2014) Neurochemistry. ISBN 978-953-51-1237-2. Rijeka, Croatia: IntechOpen, 414 pages.
Heinbockel T (ed) (2012) Neuroscience. ISBN 978-953-51-0617-3. Rijeka, Croatia: IntechOpen, 138 pages.
Major Research Interests
- Translational medicine
- Drug discovery
- Neural signaling and synaptic transmission in the central nervous system
- Functional organization of the olfactory and limbic system
- Cellular and network mechanisms of brain function and dysfunction studied with electrophysiological, optical, anatomical, and pharmacological methods
Research in the Heinbockel Lab is aimed at elucidating organizational principles of neural systems in the brain using electrophysiological, pharmacological, optical, and anatomical methods as well as mathematical and computational approaches. In particular, the lab is interested in the functional organization of the olfactory and limbic system. The long-term objective is to understand how cellular and synaptic properties of neurons give rise to circuit functions and behavioral output. On the one hand, the goal of the work is to discover fundamental principles and general mechanisms of brain function. On the other hand, the research has been directed at understanding mechanisms of information processing that form the basis of persistent changes in nerve cell function related to neurological and neuropsychiatric disorders.
Olfaction as a Predictor of Disease
Our sensory systems, including taste and smell, are continuously exposed to external stimuli that are processed in neural pathways of the nervous system in order to maintain bodily homeostasis and to provide appropriate behavioral responses. Recent estimates suggest that more than 12% of the U.S. population experience taste or smell (chemosensory) dysfunction. Therefore, it is critical to identify treatments for smell and taste disorders. Olfaction is increasingly acknowledged for its predictive value as an indicator of disorders. Olfactory deficits are evident early on in certain disorders such as Alzheimer’s Disease and Parkinson’s Disease. More generally, olfactory dysfunction is found in diseases that cause degenerative neuropathology, progressive loss of memory and communication function, normal age-based decline of physiological functions, intellectual challenges, depressive and anxiety disorders as well as post-traumatic stress disorders. The relevance of olfaction as a predictor of disease has come to the forefront during the COVID-19 pandemic. In the spring of 2020, Dr. Heinbockel joined an international group of smell and taste scientists that make up the Global Consortium of Chemosensory Research to study how, when, and why people who have the coronavirus experience loss of smell and taste. Their published study surveyed COVID-19 patients from around the world and provided the greatest evidence to date of a link between COVID-19 and the loss of smell, taste and chemesthesis, the sensitivity to chemicals such as those in chili peppers. Many COVID-19 patients experience smell and taste dysfunctions that are not related to blockage of nasal passages as seen in upper respiratory tract infections.
The Olfactory Bulb as an Experimental Platform for Translational Research
One research focus in the lab is on neural signaling in the olfactory bulb, the first central relay station in the brain for olfactory information. Here, we study the role of different neurotransmitter systems such as metabotropic glutamate receptors and cannabinoid receptors. We are extending the current research projects in the olfactory bulb to studies of neuronal processing in higher olfactory centers, including the olfactory cortex, and determine the interaction of the olfactory system with the limbic system, specifically the amygdala. One exciting possibility is to reveal neuronal mechanisms involved in emotional processing of olfactory input to the limbic system.
The Heinbockel Lab is working on translational projects, specifically, the development of novel anti-epileptic drugs. For this work, we use an acute slice preparation of the olfactory bulb as an experimental platform to address a variety of questions. Development of novel anxiolytic and anticonvulsant drugs is essential to improve the efficacy of patient treatment with medication. We are testing a variety of structurally unrelated chemicals for their effects on nerve cells to move forward on our path to drug development for the treatment of neurological disorders. We have identified several drugs that are effective in a brain target and can serve as lead compounds.
Endocannabinoid Signaling and the Neurobiology of Drug Addiction
Cannabinoids are well known bioactive ingredients of the drugs marijuana and hashish and have emerged as key intercellular signaling molecules in the brain. The brain makes its “own marijuana” (Bradley E. Alger), natural compounds called endocannabinoids that are involved in communication between nerve cells. Despite the relevance of the cannabinoid system for other brain structures, as well as human behavior, the role of the cannabinoid transmitter system for odor processing still needs to be clarified. While neurons in the olfactory bulb express high levels of cannabinoid receptors, their cellular and network functions are less clear. By studying the role of endocannabinoids in neural brain circuits, we aim to translate the neurobiology of drug addiction to the realm of pharmacotherapeutic treatment of addiction. A collaborative project addresses epigenetic drug effects. Based on our novel data, we are testing the effect of cannabinoids at the molecular level. The aim is to determine gene-environment interactions and epigenetic mechanisms of health disparities.
In summary, the Heinbockel Lab conducts innovative basic and translational research on biological mechanisms involved in disease conditions that disproportionately affect minority populations and other health disparity populations.
Methods and Models used:
- acute and cultured slice preparations
- amygdala, hippocampus, olfactory bulb
- guinea pig, rat, wild-type and gene-targeted mice (k.o.: mGluR1, mGluR5, CB1R)
- cell lines
- recording neural activity:
- patch clamp recording, current clamp and voltage clamp
- intracellular (sharp microelectrode) and extracellular electrophysiology
- voltage-sensitive dye imaging
- intracellular calcium measurements
- microstimulation, microinjection
- intracellular staining, neuronal tracing
- light and laser scanning confocal microscopy
- photolysis of caged compounds
- differential interference contrast visualization of cells in living slices
- neuronal tracing & neuroanatomical techniques (histochemistry, immunocytochemistry)