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Donna J.. Calu, PhD

Academic Title:

Associate Professor

Primary Appointment:




Phone (Primary):

‪(443) 302-9139‬

Phone (Secondary):


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

Bacharach, S.Z., Martin, DA,  Stapf, CA,  Sun, F,  Li, Y, Cheer, JF, Calu, DJ (2023). Decreased ventral tegmental area CB1R signaling reduces sign-tracking and shifts cue-outcome dynamics in rat nucleus accumbens. The Journal of Neuroscience. 21 June 2023, 43 (25) 4684-4696; PMID: 37208179

Utsav Gyawali, David A Martin, Fangmiao Sun, Yulong Li, Donna Calu (2023) Dopamine in the dorsal bed nucleus of stria terminalis signals Pavlovian sign-tracking and reward violations. eLife 12:e81980

Moin Afshar N, Cinotti F, Martin D, Khamassi M, Calu DJ, Taylor JR, Groman SM. (2023) Reward-Mediated, Model-Free Reinforcement-Learning Mechanisms in Pavlovian and Instrumental Tasks Are Related. J Neurosci2023 Jan 18;43(3):458-471doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.1113-22.2022. 

Keefer SE, Kochli, DE, Calu, DJ. (2022) Basolateral amygdala to insular cortex projections make sign-tracking behavior insensitive to outcome value. eNeuro. 9 (5) ENEURO.0156-22.2022.

Martin, D. A., Keefer, S. E., and Calu, D. (2022) Investigating discriminative stimulus modulation of opioid seeking after conflict‑induced abstinence in sign‑ and goal‑tracking rats. Psychopharmacology. Published online Aug 16 2022.  doi: 10.1007/s00213-022-06204-7

Keefer, SE, Gyawali, U., Calu, DJ. (2021). Choose your path: Divergent basolateral amygdala efferents differentially mediate incentive motivation, flexibility and decision-making. Behav. Brain Res.;409:113306. doi: 10.1016/j.bbr.2021.113306. Online ahead of print.

Kochli, DE, Keefer, SE Gyawali, U, Calu, DJ. (2020) Basolateral Amygdala to Nucleus Accumbens Communication Differentially Mediates Devaluation Sensitivity of Sign- and Goal-Tracking Rats.  Front. Behav. Neurosci. 14:593645.

Gyawali, UG, Martin, DA, Sulima, A, Rice, KC, Calu, DJ. (2020) Role of BNST CRFR1 receptors in incubation of fentanyl seeking. Front. Behav. Neurosci. 14:153.

Martin, DA, Gyawali, U, Calu, DJ. (2020) Effects of 5-HT 2A Receptor Stimulation on Economic Demand for Fentanyl After Intermittent and Continuous Access Self-Administration in Male Rats. Addict Biol. 2020 May 26; e12926. doi: 10.1111/adb.12926. Online ahead of print.

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 | *Featured in editors pick 2021

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.


*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

Institutional Service


University of Maryland School of Medicine (UMSOM) / University of Maryland, Baltimore (UMB)


2016- present Thesis committee member (1-2 committees/yr), Program in Neuroscience, UMB

                      Qualifying Exam Committee member (1-2 committees/yr), Program in Neuroscience, UMB

                      Advisory committee member(1-2 committees/yr), Program in Neuroscience, UMB

                      Interviewer for Medical School Admissions (5-10 applicants/yr)

2016-2017      School of Medicine Council, Alternate member for Department of Anatomy & Neurobiology           

                     Nomination review committee for GPILS and OPS Awards, Program in Neuroscience Faculty                   representative

2017- present  Chair of Neurobiology Seminar Series for Department of Anatomy and Neurobiology

                       Program in Neuroscience Retreat Committee member, UMB

2017- 2018      Co-Chair Anatomy and Neurobiology Faculty Search Committee

2017-2019       Program in Neuroscience Seminar Committee member

2018-2019       School of Medicine Council, Representative for Department of Anatomy & Neurobiology

2018-2020       Program in Neuroscience Curriculum Committee member

2018- present   Chair of Program in Neuroscience Retreat

                       Chair of Neurobiology Seminar Series, Department of Anatomy and Neurobiology

                       Program in Neuroscience Training Committee member, Admissions Committee

2019-2020       School of Medicine Council, Alternate for Department of Anatomy & Neurobiology

2020- 2021      Anatomy and Neurobiology Chair for Neuroscience, Anatomy, Pharmacology, and Physiology Seminar Series (virtual seminar series jointly held by listed departments)

2021-present   Medical Scientist Training Program (MSTP) Admissions Committee

2023-present  Director Program in Neuroscience

Outside Service


2010-2013       F1000 Associate Faculty Member, post-publication review contributor (4-5/yr)

2014                Outreach lecturer to disadvantaged and special education high school students; Winter                           Conference on Brain Research School Outreach Program, Colorado

2015                Poster Judge, Greater Baltimore Society for Neuroscience Meeting, UMB, MD

2016                International Thesis Reader, PhD, University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia

2016                Poster judge, International Behavioral Neuroscience Society Meeting, Budapest, Hungary

2018                Poster Judge, Greater Baltimore Society for Neuroscience Meeting, The Johns Hopkins University, MD

2018-present    Laboratory demonstration for NOVA Baltimore City Schools Fall Lab Tour, UMSOM, MD

2019                Poster judge, Graduate Research Conference, Amygdala in Health and Disease, MA

2019-2020        Mock Study Section for Graduate NRSA (2 students), UMB, Baltimore MD

2020-present    Mentor, Women in Learning Mentor Program, Pavlovian Society

2021                 Mentor, MiNDS Mentor Mid-Atlantic Neuroscience Diversity Scholars Program; NIH funded program for undergraduates that are under-represented minorities in sciences, UMSOM

2021                Poster judge, Graduate Research Conference, Baltimore, MD (virtual)

Professional Activity

Download CV for Mentoring, Teaching, and Invited Lectures


Local and National Service


Journal Review Ad Hoc

2010-present   Ad Hoc reviewer for Journal of Neuroscience (1-10x/yr), Neuroscience (1-2x/yr)

2012-present   Ad Hoc reviewer for Addiction Biology (1x/yr)

2014- present Ad Hoc reviewer for Behavioral Neuroscience (1-3x/year)

2015- present Ad Hoc reviewer for Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience (1-5/yr), Neuropsychopharmacology (1-3/yr)

2016-present   Ad Hoc reviewer for Behavioural Brain Research (1-3x/yr)

2017-present   Ad Hoc reviewer for Scientific Reports (1x), Synapse (1x), Neuropharmacology (1x/yr), Cell Reports (1x)

2018-present   Ad Hoc reviewer for Behavioral Processes (1x), Neurobiology of Learning and Memory (1-2/yr), Nature Communications (1x)

2019-present   Ad Hoc reviewer for Progress in Neuropsychopharmacology and Biological Psychiatry (1x), Physiology and Behavior (1-3x/yr), Journal of Experimental Psychology: Animal Learning and Cognition (1-2x/yr), eLife (1-2x/yr)

2021                Ad Hoc reviewer for eNeuro (1x)

2021                Ad Hoc reviewer for International Journal of Nueropsychopharmacology (1x)                                           

Editorial Positions

2018-present   Associate Editor for Journal of Neuroscience (4-8x/year)

2020-present   Review Editor for Decision Neuroscience; Frontiers in Neuroscience, Frontiers in Psychology (4-8x/yr)

2021-present   Review Editor for Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, Learning and Memory (4-8x/year)


NIH Grant Peer Review

2019                Ad Hoc grant reviewer for Center on Compulsive Behaviors NIAAA/NIDA/NIMH IRP Study Section for Postdoctoral Fellowships

2021                Ad Hoc grant reviewer for Neurobiology of Motivated Behavior (NMB) NIH Study Section


International and Conference Program Peer Review

2013                Ad Hoc grant reviewer for French National Research Agency

2015                Ad Hoc grant reviewer for Israel Science Foundation

2016                Ad Hoc grant reviewer for Marsden Fund, Royal Society of New Zealand

2017                Abstract Reviewer for program selection; Cosyne Annual Meeting


Panels/Symposia Chaired

2012                Panel Chair,  “Controlling the brain with light: An optogenetic approach to study the neural circuit basis of behavior,” Winter Conference on Brain Research, Snowbird, UT

2017                Panel Chair, “Complimentary Computational and Experimental Approaches for Understanding Sign- and Goal-Tracking Trait Differences,” Big Sky, MT

2018                Panel Chair, “Associative brain mechanisms underlying adaptive and maladaptive behavior,” International Behavioral Neuroscience Society meeting, Boca Raton, FL


Scientific Panels/Workshops/ Special Symposiums

2014                Lecturer,  NIDA Summer Student Seminar Series, Baltimore, MD

2015                Panelist, “Future of the PhD,” Academic Path representative, NIDA IRP, Baltimore, MD

2018                Panelist, “Future of the PhD,” Academic Path representative, NIDA IRP, Baltimore, MD

2018                Panelist, “New Faculty Panel,” Office of Postdoctoral Scholars and the GPILS/OPS Career and Professional Development, UMB, Baltimore, MD

2019-2020       Panelist, “Hypothesis Testing”, Proseminar Course, Program in Neuroscience, UMB, Baltimore, MD

2020                Panelist, “Career Development Panel,” Graduate Research Seminar, ME, cancelled due to pandemic


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