Neuronal circuits of reward and aversion

Since the moment we wake up, we are continuously flooded with sensory information of variable relevance. Therefore, our brains evolved to filter information, and focus on relevant stimuli that are associated with an emotionally significant experience. A stimulus that is inherently appetitive/rewarding (positive valence) triggers approach; whereas a stimulus that is aversive (negative valence) induces avoidance. Different regions of the limbic system represent valence, including the nucleus accumbens, amygdala, ventral tegmental area, amongst others. In the latest years, researchers have been trying to identify properties that distinguishes rewarding and aversive neuronal ensembles, but this has been a challenging task: Is it differential inputs and/or outputs? Distinct genetic signatures? Functional characteristics?

Our lab is focused in understanding how our brain encodes reward and aversion, and how this information is conveyed into motivated behaviors. We are particularly interested in the nucleus accumbens, a key region in rewarding/aversive learning and in motivation.

We use a combination of tools including behavioral evaluation, optogenetics, electrophysiology, pharmacology and live imaging with genetically-encoded sensors in rodents to understand how reward and aversion are encoded in the nucleus accumbens circuitry. We are performing these studies in physiological conditions but also in rodent models of neurodevelopmental challenges such as prenatal stress. Ultimately, by unveiling the neurobiological underpinnings of motivated behavior, one can contribute for the mechanistic interpretation of neuropsychiatric disorders such as depression and addiction.


Main projects

Neurobiological basis of reward and aversion: a focus on the nucleus accumbens circuitry

Impact of prenatal stress in the brain: from rodents to humans


  • Rodent Behavioral platform

  • Tracer/anatomical studies

  • Optogenetics and chemogenetics

  • In vivo sensor imaging (fiber photometry, 1-photon miniscope)

  • In vivo electrophysiology

  • Molecular biology


Host Institution

The ICVS was created in 2003 and aims at improving human health through outstanding life-science research, cutting-edge medical innovation and delivery of specialized services. The ICVS is a R&D Unit incorporated in the School of MedicineUniversity of Minho, in Braga, Portugal.

Portugal is a wonderful country, known by its good food and wine, excellent weather and warm and friendly people. Braga is the youngest city in Portugal and is a vibrant place to study and live.

ICVS is strategically located within a fast growing Cluster of Biomedical Science, Technology and Healthcare institutions. It has an overall area of laboratories of 6000 m2. ICVS provides fully operational Functional Cores for: Animal Housing and Experimentation, Microscopy (confocal, 1P, 2P), Histology, Molecular Biology, Cytometry, Cell and Tissue Culture, Electrophysiology, Optogenetics, Live imaging, Neuroimaging, fMRI, and Biosafety Levels 2 and 3. The ICVS also benefits from the Clinical Academic Centre (2CA-Braga) infrastructures, a wind at Hospital of Braga that is supported by specialized medical doctors/researchers with the expertise to perform clinical research.

“I strongly believe in open and collaborative science. Collaborative efforts accelerate scientific progress, and allow the development of multidisciplinary approaches to tackle complex problems.”

Ana João Rodrigues

All rights reserved. Photos by João Dias, ICVS