Ana João Rodrigues

  • reward
  • aversion
  • neuronal circuits
  • valence
  • prenatal stress
  • motivation

2003 – Graduation in Applied Biology
2008 – PhD at University of Minho, Portugal (Patricia Maciel’s Lab) and at David Geffen School of Medicine – UCLA, USA (Dan Geschwind’s lab)
2008 – 2013 Post-doctoral fellow at ICVS/School of Medicine, University of Minho, Portugal (Nuno Sousa’s lab)
2014 – Team leader at ICVS/School of Medicine, University of Minho

My research is focused in unravelling how our brain encodes rewarding and aversive events to drive motivated behaviors.
How do our brains compute that a stimulus is “good” or “bad”? How is valence represented in the mammalian brain? What are the neural substrates underlying a rewarding or an aversive experience? What lies between the stimulus and the behavioural response?
On top of these exciting fundamental neuroscience questions, I am also exploring how early life stress in specific developmental windows can imprint long-lasting marks in these processes, leading to maladaptive behaviours (depression, addiction).
In the last years, my team has been allying fundamental with clinical research, combining rodent and human data, using a variety of techniques to find mechanistic explanations on how reward and aversion are encoded in the mammalian brain (rodents – in vivo electrophysiology, optogenetics, calcium imaging, behavioral evaluation; humans – fMRI, neuropsychological evaluation).

In addition to my scientific and teaching activities, I am also one of the Science Outreach Coordinators of host institution, responsible for science dissemination for the society.

Scientific Highlights

1. Soares-Cunha et al, Distinct role of nucleus accumbens D2-MSN projections to ventral pallidum in different phases of motivated behavior. Cell Reports (2022)
2. Coimbra et al, Laterodorsal tegmentum–ventral tegmental area projections encode positive reinforcement signals. Journal of Neuroscience Research (2021)
3. Coimbra B, et al. Role of laterodorsal tegmentum projections to nucleus accumbens in reward-related behaviors. Nature Communications (2019)
4. Soares-Cunha C, et al. Nucleus accumbens medium spiny neurons subtypes signal both reward and aversion. Molecular Psychiatry (2019)
5. Soares-Cunha C, et al. “Nucleus accumbens microcircuit underlying D2-MSN-driven increase in motivation”. eNeuro (2018)

6. Soares-Cunha C, et al. “Activation of D2 dopamine receptor-expressing neurons in the nucleus accumbens increases motivation. Nature Communications”. (2016)

7. Science outreach in national media – Researchers win a millionaire scholarship to study the brain;
8. ERC consolidator – Valence;
9. Science outreach in national media – “Mentes que brilham (Shining minds)” Programe participation
10. Science outreach in national media – Interview about the way our brain encodes positive and negative information –


Brainstem orchestration of cue-reward associations

The brain constantly integrates new sensory information, and associates environmental cues to outcomes, adjusting behavior to maximize reward and minimize unpleasant consequences. This process is critical for survival, and its dysregulation is a hallmark of…

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Sensory signals of associative learning

Through evolution, animals gained the remarkable ability to respond with sub second precision to environmental stimuli and to learn to associate those with positive or negative outcomes…

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