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RIKEN Center for Brain Science Laboratory for Neural Circuitry of Learning and Memory

Laboratory Head: Joshua Johansen (Ph.D.)

Research Summary

Joshua  Johansen(Ph.D.)

Our experiences in the world produce physical changes in the brain and as a result of these changes memories are formed. However, in our daily lives we are constantly barraged by sensory information, most of which we do not remember. What tells the brain to store some experiences as memories while others are forgotten? Answering this question is a central goal of our laboratory.
Pleasurable and aversive experiences are powerful triggers for memory storage, telling our brain when an experience should be stored and remembered. To accomplish this task, aversive and pleasurable encounters activate neural 'teaching signal' circuits which can trigger brain alterations resulting in memory formation. Relative to our understanding of sensory and motor circuits, we understand very little about the brain circuits and mechanisms which translate aversive experiences into neural teaching signals.
Though we are generally interested in the neural circuit mechanisms of associative learning and memory, our laboratory focuses on the study of teaching signals by examining the neural processes by which aversive experiences trigger behavioral fear conditioning. We study teaching signals using fear conditioning, a powerful model for studying behavioral memory formation. We take advantage of a multi-disciplinary approach, employing state of the art optogenetic techniques to causally manipulate teaching signal circuits and in-vivo electrophysiological methods to examine the computations performed by neurons in these circuits during behavioral learning. Our goals are to define the circuits that trigger aversive memory formation and elucidate the mechanisms by which aversive experiences trigger neural plasticity in memory storage areas. In addition, we aim to determine the computations performed by neurons in different parts of these circuits and establish how circuit processes give rise to these neural computations during behavioral learning and memory. Using this strategy we ultimately seek to discover general principles of neural circuit function, neural coding and plasticity as they relate to adaptive behavior.


  • neuromodulation
  • neuronal coding
  • behavior
  • Learning and Memory
  • Emotion

Selected Publications

  • 1.Uematsu, A., Tan, B.Z., Ycu, E.A., Sulkes, J., Koivumaa, J., Junyent, F., Kremer, E.J., Witten, I.B., Deisseroth, K. and Johansen, J.P.
    "Modular Organization of the Brainstem Noradrenaline System Coordinates Opposing Learning States."
    Nature Neuroscience. In press
  • 2.Ozawa, T., Ycu, E.A., Kumar, A., Yeh. L-F., Ahmed, T., Koivumaa, J., and Johansen, J.P.
    "A feedback neural circuit for calibrating aversive memory strength."
    Nature Neuroscience 2017, 20(1): 90-97
  • 3.Madarasz, T.J., Diaz-Mataix, L., Akhand, O., Ycu, E.A., LeDoux, J.E., Johansen, J.P.
    "Evaluation of ambiguous associations in the amygdala by learning the structure of the environment."
    Nature Neuroscience, 2016, 19, 965–972
  • 4.Johansen, J.P., Diaz-Mataix, L., Hamanaka, H. Ozawa, T., Ycu, E., Koivumaa, J., Kumar, A., Hou, M., Deisseroth, K., Boyden, E. & LeDoux, J.E.:
    "Hebbian and neuromodulatory mechanisms interact to trigger associative memory formation."
    Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 111(51):E5584-92 (2014)
  • 5.Herry, C & Johansen, J.P.:
    "Encoding of fear learning and memory in distributed neural circuits."
    Nature Neuroscience, 17(12):1644-54 (2014)
  • 6.Johansen, J.P.:
    "Anxiety is the sum of its parts."
    Nature, 496 (7444):174-5 (2013)
  • 7.Johansen, J.P., Ostroff, L., Cain, C.K., LeDoux, J.E.:
    "Molecular mechanisms of fear learning and memory."
    Cell, 147: 509-524 (2011)
  • 8.Johansen, J.P., Tarpley, J.W., Ledoux, J.E., Blair, H.T.:
    "Neural substrates for expectancy-modulated fear learning in the amygdala and periaqueductal gray."
    Nature Neuroscience, 13: 979-986 (2010)
  • 9.Johansen, J.P., Hamanaka, H., Monfils, M.H., Behnia, R., Deisseroth, K., Blair, H.T., LeDoux, J.E.:
    "Optical activation of lateral amygdala pyramidal cells instructs associative fear learning."
    Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 107(28): 12692-12697 (2010)
  • 10.Johansen, J.P. & Fields, H.L.:
    "Glutamatergic activation of anterior cingulate cortex produces an aversive teaching signal."
    Nature Neuroscience, 7(4):398-403 (2004)

Recent Research Results

Related Links

Lab Members

Principal investigator

Joshua Johansen
Laboratory Head

Core members

Akira Uematsu
Research Scientist
John Ormond
Research Scientist
Mayumi Watanabe
Junior Research Associate
Jessica Natali Sulkes Cuevas
Junior Research Associate
Yuri Ishizu
Technical Staff I
Jenny Koivumaa
Technical Staff I
Yuki Goya
Technical Staff I
Khurshida Kumkum Hossain
Technical Staff I
Yusuke Kasuga
Technical Staff I


Position Deadline
Seeking a Postdoctoral Researcher Position (W20289) Open until filled

Contact Information

2-1 Hirosawa, Wako, Saitama 351-0198, Japan
Email: joshua.johansen [at] riken.jp