solving neuroscience mysteries with worms


Photo by Adam Wilson

How does alcohol affect our nervous system?

Can alcohol have transgenerational effects on behavior?

The mechanisms by which alcohol causes intoxication and addiction remain unclear at the molecular level. By using C. elegans as a minimal system, we can rapidly identify which uncharacterized and novel molecules are responsible for behavioral responses to alcohol.

You can read about our previous work on this here and here.

Alcohol dependence and abuse are known to be heritable and may cause lasting changes in behavior. C. elegans and advanced tracing software allow us to study generations of offspring in order to piece together the story of the transgenerational effects of substance use.

Guzman, D.M., Chakka, K., Shi, T., Marron, A., Fiorito, A.E., Rahman, N.S., Ro, S., Sucich, D.G., Pierce, J.T. (2022).
Transgenerational effects of alcohol on intoxication sensitivity in Caenorhabditis elegans. PLoS ONE 17(10): e0271849.


Photo by Hal Gatewood

Can we stop neurodegeneration in Alzheimer’s disease?

We have engineered C. elegans to mimic the key features of neurodegeneration observed in human Alzheimer’s disease (AD). With this new model, we can easily test whether novel drugs can prevent or reverse the degeneration of neurons by simply counting them through their transparent body. While mouse studies of AD typically take two years, the compact lifespan of C. elegans affords studies as short as 1 week. We are using our powerful new model of AD to understand why neurons die in people with AD, and to search for drugs that protect against this neuron death with unprecedented speed.

Photo by Nathan Anderson

Which genes cause problems in Down syndrome?

People with Down syndrome inherit an extra copy of the 21st chromosome which carries about 225 genes. It remains unknown which of these genes contribute to the difficulties in learning, memory and fine motor control in Down syndrome. We are using powerful genetic techniques specific to the research model C. elegans to systematically study each one of these genes. Through our research we aim to identify the few key genes that contribute to dysfunction of the nervous system.

You can read about our previous work on this here.

Photo by Doug Maloney

How does our nervous system switch between different patterns of movement?

We take for granted that we can switch seamlessly between walking and running gaits, and rapidly shift between different movements. For people with Parkinson’s disease, however, shifting between gaits and simply getting out of a chair become arduous tasks. We have recently found that the fundamental genetic mechanisms for switching between gaits can be studied in C. elegans

You can read about our previous work on this here.


Photo by Himesh Kumar Behera

How do our senses develop?

Neuroplasticity has helped our bodies adapt to stressors in our environment. How do these come to be, and how has it helped us evolutionarily? We uncover genes related to oxygen sensation and adaptive aging with our fluorescent-labeled C. elegans.
Many animals sense the earth’s magnetic field to accomplish spectacular migrations. Despite the prevalence of magnetic orientation in animals, we still do not understand all the physiological, molecular, and genetic underpinnings of this sensory modality. Importantly, although candidates have been proposed, the precise molecular sensor of the earth’s magnetic field and its transduction pathway have yet to be identified in animals. With the identification of the first magnetosensory neurons in C. elegans, we hope to elucidate the mechanisms for magnetosensation.


Cohn, J.A., Cebul, E.R., Valperga, G., Brose, L., de Bono, M., Heiman, M.G., and Pierce, J.T. (2020).
Long-term Activity Drives Dendritic Branch Elaboration of a C. Elegans Sensory Neuron. Developmental Biology, 461(1):66-74.