Chris Vaaga

Assistant Professor Biomedical Sciences

About Chris

Animals, especially those subject to predation, must be able to rapidly detect and appropriately respond to acute threats within their environment. Interestingly, these behaviors are engaged without previous associative learning, suggesting that there are hard-wired neural circuits dedicated to threat detection, sensorimotor integration, and ultimately engaging appropriate motor programs to avoid predation (such as freezing or fleeing). However, although these behaviors are innate, the behavioral strategy employed depends on a variety of extrinsic factors, such as the nature of the threat (proximity, sensory modality) and the environmental conditions (proximity to nest). This flexibility suggests that the core neural circuits controlling innate fear are under modulatory control. Our lab is interested in elucidating the core neural circuits that drive innate fear responses and understanding the conditions under which they are modulated by extrinsic circuits. To do this, the lab uses a highly integrative approach, combining in vitro electrophysiological studies to understand circuit-level information processing with in vivo techniques to understand the nature of the signals produced during behavior.


Ph.D., The Vollum Institute, Oregon Health and Science University, 2011B.S., University of Washington, 2006

Research Specialty

Slice electrophysiologyWe use slice electrophysiological approaches (including voltage clamp, current clamp, and dynamic clamp) to study circuit organization and function. Specifically, we are interested in understanding the intrinsic biophysics and properties of synaptic transmission within fear-related circuits of the periaqueductal gray.Fiber photometry and in vivo electrophysiologyWe use both fiber photometry and multi-electrode array recordings to assess neural activity from restricted populations of neurons during behavior to understand how each cell type contributes to behavior.Behavioral analysis and circuit manipulationWe use optogenetic and chemogenetic circuit manipulation techniques to test predictions of circuit function by manipulating specific cell populations and examining how these manipulations perturb behavioral performance.