University of Vermont

The College of Arts and Sciences

Department of Psychological Science

Spotlight on Research
Donna Toufexis, Ph.D.

Undergraduate Years

Donna Toufexis

Donna Toufexis

I was watching Sesame Street, thoroughly enjoying it as I sang along with Bert and Ernie when I looked around and realized that I was watching by myself. My kids were all outside playing! I knew it was time to go back to school. I was in my final year of undergraduate biology at Concordia University in Montreal, Quebec, when I took an elective course on the brain and I was hooked on neuroscience.

Graduate and Post-Graduate Studies

I started studying insect taste perception with Dr. Paul Albert and completed a master's degree under him at Concordia University. I loved insect neurobiology, but wanted to do something more closely related to human health. So I enrolled in the Ph.D. program in the Neurology Department at McGill University studying neuroendocrinology, specifically the stress response of female rats during the postpartum period, working under both Dominique Walker and Michael Meaney.

After finishing my Ph.D. I completed post-doctoral fellowships both at Concordia and with the Center for Behavioral Neuroscience (CBN) in Atlanta, Georgia. Two mentors who influenced me quite a bit were Barbara Woodside at Concordia, with whom I did a brief post-doc and learned a tremendous amount in the short time I was there, and Mike Davis at Emory University, who taught me virtually all I know about fear and anxiety systems in the brain.

Current Research

Research in my laboratory is focused on sex differences and sex hormone effects on emotional learning and anxiety behavior, and in the development of animal models of endocrine-related psychopathologies, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and post-partum depression. We employ methodology that includes...

  • discrimination fear-learning
  • acoustic startle
  • intracranial drug and hormone infusion
  • in situ hybridization
  • immunocytochemistry explore these subjects at all stages from the behavioral down to the system and molecular levels.

In particular, I focus on the involvement of estrogen on specific neuropeptide systems, such as that of pituitary adenyl cyclase-activating peptide (PACAP), in the control of emotional behavior. A recent collaboration with scientists at the University of Vermont and Emory University in Atlanta, currently in-press in Nature, focused on the connection between PACAP, estrogen and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

I also hold a research position at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center in Atlanta. In my National Institute of Health-supported research laboratory at Yerkes I study the effect of psychosocial stress on estrogen's modulation of motivational and emotional behavior. I'm also interested in nicotine addiction and am actively collaborating with colleagues at the University of Vermont on an NIH funded American Recovery & Reinvestment Act (ARRA) grant examining the effect of nicotinic receptor gating proteins on addiction. I am involved in teaching at both the undergraduate and graduate levels and bring senior UVM undergraduates to Yerkes for summer internships to introduce my students to primate research.