about icvs | People | AJRODRIGUES


Name: Ana João Rodrigues

Office: G2.25

School Phone: +351 253 604 929

Email: ajrodrigues@med.uminho.pt




Keywords: reward dopamine nucleus accumbens D2 receptor mesolimbic circuit glucocorticoids prenatal stress optogenetics electrophysiology epigenetics


       I graduated in Applied Biology in 2003, with the research trainee at Leiden University Medical Center (LUMC), Holland (Dorien Peters’ Lab). From 2004 -2008, I did my PhD at University of Minho, Portugal (Patricia Maciel’s Lab) andat David Geffen School of Medicine - UCLA, USA (Dan Geschwind’s lab). In my PhD, I characterized the first knockout animal model (C. elegans) forataxin-3, the protein involved in spinocerebellar ataxia type 3. I identified several molecular interactors of this protein and showed that ataxin-3 is important for cytoskeletal organization. In 2009, I started a post-doctoral position at ICVS (Nuno Sousa’s lab), where I showed that early life stress induces long-term epigenetic changes in dopamine receptor D2 in the rodent striatum, with significant impact in emotional behavior. 

     In2013, I was awarded with the competitive FCT Investigator position (Starting Level), allowing the establishment of my research niche at the host institution– ICVS | School of Medicine, University of Minho, Portugal. My team started to dissect the neurobiological basis of reward and motivation, and to evaluate how prenatal stress/glucocorticoid exposure (iuGC) can imprint long-lasting changes in the reward circuit to drive maladaptive behavior. We focused our analysis on the nucleus accumbens (NAc) region, a critical element of the reward system. We showed that both D1- and D2- neurons in the NAc can drive reward or aversion, depending on their pattern of activation. Importantly, iuGC exposure mostly affected NAc D2-neurons,increasing vulnerability for motivational deficits and addictive behaviors later in life. 

   The disruptive finding that both NAc subpopulations could drive reward and aversion raised challenging questions that we are now trying to answer: How does NAc process positive/negative valence stimuli to drive motivated behaviors? How is reward and aversion differentially encoded/segregated in NAc subcircuits? How does iuGC exposure perturbs NAc subcircuits, leading to behavioral alterations? Can we counteract iuGC-induced changes? 

      To answer these defiant questions, in the last years we have been allying fundamental with clinical research, combining rodent and human data, and using a variety of techniques (rodents - in vivo electrophysiology, optogenetics, calcium imaging, behavioral evaluation; humans – fMRI, neuropsychological evaluation).

      Currently, I am an Assistant Investigator at ICVS, and an invited Assistant Professor at School of Medicine of University of Minho. In addition, I am the Neuroscience Outreach Coordinator of ICVS, responsible for science dissemination in the community.


ORCID:            orcid.org/0000-0003-1968-7968

Scopus:           12139015600

ResearcherID:  D-3782-2012


Bibliometric indicators





Five Key Publications

Coimbra B, et al. (2019): Role of laterodorsal tegmentum projections to nucleus accumbens in reward-related behaviors. Nat Commun 10: 4138. 

Soares-Cunha C, etal. (2019): Nucleus accumbens medium spiny neurons subtypes signal both reward and aversion. Mol Psychiatry

Soares-CunhaC, et al. (2018): Nucleus Accumbens Microcircuit Underlying D2-MSN-Driven Increase in Motivation. eNeuro 5

Coimbra B, et al. (2017): Impairments in laterodorsal tegmentum to VTA projections underlie glucocorticoid-triggered reward deficits. eLife 6. 

Soares-Cunha C, et al. (2016): Activation of D2 dopamine receptor-expressing neurons in the nucleus accumbens increases motivation. Nat Commun 7: 11829


PTDC/MED-NEU/29071/2017; Impact of prenatal stress in the reward system: from depression to addiction and back (REWSTRESS); Funding agency: FCT (2018-2021)

SAICTPAC/0010/2015; Synaptic networks and Personalized Medicine Approaches to Understand Neurobehavioural Diseases Across the Lifespan (MEDPERSYST); Funding agency: FCT (2017-2021) Co-coordinator with N. Sousa

BIAL 30-16; Exploring the neural basis of motivation;Funding agency: BIAL foundation (2017-2019)

CCA-Rodrigues 2015; Long term Impact of Prenatal Glucocorticoid Exposure (Clinical project); Funding agency: Clinical Academic Center (2015-2019)

Selected Honors/Prizes/Competitive scholarships

2013     FENS/Dana Foundation Award for Brain Awareness Week

2013     Best Article in Neurobiology of Systems & Behavior, Portuguese Society for Neurosciences

2012     Janssen Neurosciences Prize, 1st edition

2011     InEurope Grant Award,International Brain Research Organization (IBRO)


Long term impact of prenatal glucocorticoid exposure (Human study) (Leader) 

Nucleus accumbens circuits of reward and aversion (Leader) 

Impact of peripheral neuropathies on CNS function and structure  

Selected Publications

Rodrigues AJ, Leão P, Pêgo JM, Cardona D, Carvalho MM, Oliveira M, Costa BM, Carvalho AF, Morgado P, Araújo D, Palha JA, Almeida OF, Sousa N. Mechanisms of initiation and reversal of drug-seeking behavior induced by prenatal exposure to glucocorticoids. Mol Psychiatry. 2012 Dec;17(12):1295-305. doi: 10.1038/mp.2011.126.

Soares-Cunha C, Coimbra B, Sousa N, Rodrigues AJ. Reappraising striatal D1- and D2-neurons in reward and aversion. Neurosci Biobehav Rev, 68:370-386 (2016)

Rodrigues AJ, Leão P, Carvalho M, Almeida OF, Sousa N. Potential programming of dopaminergic circuits by early life stress. Psychopharmacology (Berl). 2011 Mar;214(1):107-20. doi: 10.1007/s00213-010-2085-3. Epub 2010 Nov 19.

Borges S, Coimbra B, Soares-Cunha C, Ventura-Silva P, Pinto L, Carvalho MM, Pego JM, Rodrigues AJ, Sousa N. Glucocorticoid programming of the mesopontine cholinergic system. Front Neuroendocr Sci, 4:190 (2013).

Soares-Cunha C, Coimbra B, Borges S, Carvalho MM, Rodrigues AJ*, Sousa N*. The motivational drive to natural rewards is modulated by prenatal glucocorticoid exposure. Transl Psychiatry, 4(6):e397 (2014).

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