Carina Soares-Cunha

  • reward
  • aversion
  • associative learning
  • reward circuit
  • nucleus accumbens
  • sensory inputs

I am a Biologist, with a master and PhD in Health Sciences. I have post-doctoral experience at ICVS/University of Minho and Zuckerman Institute/Columbia University (USA).
Throughout the past years I have been studying how the brain reward circuit encodes motivated behaviors. I studied the role of the nucleus accumbens direct and indirect pathways, revealing a concurrent role of these two neuronal sub-types, breaking the classic dogma of a dichotomous function.
Currently, my research focus on the identification and characterization of neuronal ensembles representing positive and negative associative learning. I am combining a high-throughput multidisciplinary approach – single cell RNA-sequencing, calcium imaging, optogenetics and behavior – to describe with intricate detail the neurobiological basis of reinforcement.
I published several papers in high impact journals, as both first and senior author. I am also PI and team member of several ongoing projects.
I supervise both master and PhD students, as well as many undergraduate students. I frequently host students under international traineeships.
In addition to publications and funding, my work of excellence has resulted in the attribution of several personal prizes and honors, from which the “Fulbright Grant for Professors or Doctorate holder researchers”, the “L’Oréal Portugal Honor Medal for Women in Science” and the “IBRO Early Career Award” are highlighted.
I addition to scientific outputs, I actively volunteer in outreach activities such as “Summer in Campus” and “Brain awareness week”.

Scientific Highlights

Soares-Cunha C, Domingues AV, Correia R, Coimbra B, Vieitas-Gaspar N, de Vasconcelos NAP, Pinto L, Sousa N, Rodrigues AJ. (2022). Distinct role of nucleus accumbens D2-MSN projections to ventral pallidum in different phases of motivated behavior. Cell Reports, 38,110380.

Domingues AV, Coimbra B, Correia R, Deseyve C, Floresco SB, Sousa N, Rodrigues AJ* & Soares-Cunha C* (2022) Prenatal glucocorticoid exposure alters effort decision making and triggers nucleus accumbens and anterior cingulate cortex functional changes. Transl Psychiatry, 12:338
Soares-Cunha C*, Vasconcelos NAP, Coimbra B, Domingues AV, Silva JM, loureiro-Campos E, Gaspar R, Sotiropoulos I, Sousa N, Rodrigues AJ. (2020). Nucleus accumbens medium spiny neurons subtypes signal both reward and aversion. Molecular Psychiatry, 25: 3241–3255.

Soares-Cunha C, Coimbra B, Domingues AV, Vasconcelos NAP, Sousa N & Rodrigues AJR (2018) Nucleus accumbens microcircuit underlying D2-MSN-driven increase in motivation. eNeuro 5(2): e0386-18.2018.

Soares-Cunha C, Coimbra B, David-Pereira A, Borges S, Pinto L, Costa P, Sousa N & Rodrigues AJ (2016) Activation of D2 dopamine receptor-expressing neurons in the nucleus accumbens increases motivation. Nat Commun 7:11829.

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

Research Project as Principal investigator:
175/2020, funding agency – Bial Foundation (2021), amount funded – 45500€
2022.01467.PTDC, funding agency – FCT (2022), amount funded – 50000€
CEECIND/03887/2017, funding agency – FCT (2019), amount funded – 180.930,00€

• 2021 L’Oréal Portugal Honor Medals for Women in Science, attributed by FCT, the L’Oréal Portugal and the National Commission of UNESCO
• Fulbright Scholarship for Professors or Doctorate holder Researchers, Fulbright Portugal

• IBRO Early Career Award
• SPN Best Manuscript 2020, Portuguese Society for Neurosciences (SPN)


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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