Skip to main content

Thomas W. Abrams, PhD

Academic Title:


Primary Appointment:


Secondary Appointment(s):



Howard Hall 405

Phone (Primary):

(410) 706-5837

Education and Training

Carleton College, Northfield, MN                      B.A.              1972         Biology

University of Washington, Seattle, WA             Ph.D.            1981          Zoology, Physiology

Columbia University, N.Y., NY                         Postdoc         1986          Neurobiology



Dr. Abrams has been studying the cellular and molecular basis of associative and non-associative learning for several decades using the important neurobiological model Aplysia.  In his early work, he investigated the role of calmodulin-sensitive adenylyl cyclase as an associative integrator during learning.  He was the first to propose that dually-regulated proteins may function as coincidence detectors or logical elements in memory formation, through these early studies of the associative role of adenylyl cyclase.  This research on adenylyl cyclase in Aplysia led him to clone four adenylyl cyclase isoforms and characterize their role in neuronal plasticity.

Over the past decade, Dr. Abrams and his colleagues have analyzed a synaptic switch that mediates sensory gating in Aplysia and that contributes behaviorally to an attention-like mechanism.  Sensory synapses are switched rapidly between active and silent states, depending on the salience of stimuli.  This mechanism involves protein kinase C and the small G protein Arf, as well as Arf regulatory proteins.  Dr. Abrams has recently developed a novel behavioral task that enables the study of attention in this simple model system. 

In 2012, together with Claire Fraser and the Institute of Genome Sciences at UMB, Dr. Abrams initiated a collaborative project to assemble and annotate the complete transcriptome of Aplysia. Assembling a near complete Aplysia transcriptome required a number of bioinformatic innovations.  A recent comparison of published transcriptomes of non-genomic species (i.e. excluding models such as Drosophila, zebrafish, and mouse) revealed that the Aplysia transcriptome is now one of the two most complete transcriptomes available.  Dr. Abrams and his colleagues are now developing strategies to improve the accuracy of single cell transcriptomes for Aplysia neurons.

In 2002, with the participation of a handful of colleagues in the Program in Neuroscience, Dr. Abrams launched the Proseminar in Hypothesis Testing and Experimental Design to improve the effectiveness of training of PhD students in critical thinking.  The primary objective was to assist students in increasing their facility in developing explanatory models and designing experiments to test those models.  During a decade of improving the Proseminar approach to teaching critical thinking for graduate students, he came to understand that students need more extensive opportunities to practice thinking about experimental design.  This led Dr. Abrams to develop innovative, concise exercises, an approach that is now being expanded for use in training programs nationally.  


Research/Clinical Keywords

Learning and memory, synaptic plasticity, neuromodulation, ionic currents, transcriptomics, cell signaling, protein kinase C, adenylyl cyclase, modeling of neuromodulatory signaling pathways

Highlighted Publications

Lin, A. H., J. E. Cohen, Q. Wan, K. Y. Niu, P. Shrestha, S. L. Bernstein and T. W. Abrams.  (2010)  Serotonin stimulation of cAMP-dependent plasticity in Aplysia sensory neurons is mediated by calmodulin-sensitive adenylyl cyclase. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 107:15607-12.  PMID:  20702764

Wan, Q., Jiang XY, A. M. Negroiu, S.G. Lu, K. S. McKay and T. W. Abrams.  (2012)  Protein kinase C acts as a molecular detector of firing patterns to mediate sensory gating in Aplysia.  Nature Neurosci. 15:1144-52.  PMID:  22772333

Abrams, T. W. and W. S. Sossin (2017)  Invertebrate Genomes and the Evolution of Synaptic Transmission.  In: Encyclopedia of Invertebrate Neurobiology  (In press)


Awards and Affiliations

2008      Outstanding Achievement in Graduate Education, Graduate Program in Life Sciences, Univ. of MD

2008      Program in Neuroscience Student Award:   Teacher of the Year

2012      USM Regents' Faculty Award for Teaching for innovation in graduate education  (This award is for a faculty member selected from among 12 campuses of the Univ. of Maryland System)