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James Lab

Rutgers University

Robert Wood Johnson  Medical School

Department of Psychiatry

& Brain Health Institute

Our mission is to better understand the neural basis of psychiatric illnesses and to guide the development of more effective treatments for these devastating conditions.


We are particularly interested in studying illnesses characterized by aberrant motivation, including substance use disorders, depression, and eating disorders.


Lab Updates

June 2024: Congratulations to Vanessa Zhang, a brilliant high school student (!) who has been working in our lab for the past 2 years, on publishing a first-author paper describing a machine learning approach for identifying novel orexin 1 receptor ligands. Check out her paper at Artificial Intelligence Chemistry, and read associated news story here

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June 2023: We were thrilled to be awarded the Grand Prize and the Genentech JDEI Award as part of the Nucleate Biomedical Accelerator Program (Philadelphia Chapter). This is part of our efforts to advance our lead compound JA212 to clinical development for the management of several indications, including binge eating disorder and stimulant use disorders. Read the story featured in Rutgers News here.

October 2022: We are happy to continue our collaboration with Dr. Jamie Peters' lab with the publication of a new manuscript in Translational Psychiatry. Here, we show that orexin and oxytocin bidirectionally regulate opioid behaviors. You can check out the paper here.

August 2022: Congratulations to Utsav Gyawali who was invited to submit a 'Hot Topics' article to this years' annual Neuropsychopharmacology Reviews. In his paper, Utsav elegantly discusses recent advancements in targeting the orexin system to manage sleep disruption in substance use disorder. You can read his paper here.

July 2022: Very pleased to have published our paper in Journal of Neuroscience, led by Dr. Gary Kane and in collaboration with Drs. Nathaniel Daw and Jon Cohen (Princeton), and conducted in the lab of Gary Aston-Jones. This paper examines the role of anterior cingulate cortex in a patch foraging task in rats. You can read the paper here.

July 2022: We are excited to be presenting as part of a Plenary at the Australian and New Zealand Academy of Eating Disorders (ANZAED) meeting in Sydney, Australia, in August. Ahead of the meeting, we published an article in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry outlining opportunities and challenges for translating basic neuroscience research into better treatment outcomes for eating disorders. This was published in collaboration with other panel members Drs. Trevor Steward (U Melbourne), Robyn Brown (also U Melbourne), Claire Foldi (Monash U) and Milan Piya (Western Sydney U).

June 2022: Well done to Shayna in the lab for publishing a first author experimental paper in Addiction Neuroscience. In her paper, Shayna examined the association between the novelty preference trait and cocaine vulnerability in male rats. You can read her paper here, and her earlier paper which examined novelty reactivity and cocaine vulnerability here.  

May 2022: Congrats to Utsav Gyawali who authored an excellent invited commentary published in Biological Psychiatry. Utsav's paper discusses an interesting recent manuscript from Dr. Cliff Summers' (U South Dakota) that that orexin signaling in BLA contributes to individual differences in stress sensitivity. You can check out Utsav's paper here, and the original paper here.

January 2022: We are very excited to welcome Dr. Utsav Gyawali (pictured right) who is joining the lab as a postdoctoral fellow. Utsav recently defended his PhD at the University of Maryland, where he worked with Dr. Donna Calu on all things dopamine and reward. Utsav will be taking the reins of our projects focused on the orexin system as a mediator of sleep dysregulation in cocaine use disorder. Welcome, Utsav!

January 2022: Pleased to have worked with our friends and colleagues Dr. Rachel Smith (Texas A&M), Robyn Brown (University of Melbourne) and Christopher Dayas (University of Newcastle) on this article outlining recent advances in modeling dysregulated reward seeking for food and drugs. You can check out our paper, published this month in Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, here


January 2022: Congratulations to Jackie Mehr for her co-authoriship on our recent collaborative paper examining chemogenetic approaches for managing trigeminal neuropathic pain, published in the European Journal of Pain. This was an excellent collaboration with Dr. Rafael Benoliel and Dr. Olga Korczeniewska at the Rutgers School of Dental Medicine, and Dr. Gary Aston-Jones of the Rutgers Brain Health Institute. Check out the paper here.

October 2021: Congratulations to Jackie Mehr and Michelle Bilotti in their lab on their paper accepted in Trends in Neurosciences. You can check out their paper ahead of print here, and it will be included in the upcoming November issue of TINS.

October 2021: Massive congratulations to Abanoub Armanious (undergraduate researcher in the lab) who was awarded a Research Fellowship from the Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (LSAMP) program. This funding will support Abanoub's exciting work related to binge-like eating in obese rats.

September 2021: Well done to Caroline Pantazis, Shayna O'Connor and all others involved in this collaborative paper just published in Neuropsychopharmacology - we showed that the orexin-VTA pathway is critically involved in driving motivation for cocaine that is augmented by discrete cues. Check out the paper here.

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August 2021: Happy to have worked with Jasper Heinsbroek and Jamie Peters' lab on a paper published in Nature Communications examining the IL-NAsh circuit in heroin choice/relapse behavior. Check out the paper here!

August 2021: With Shayna off to grad school in the Fall, we welcome Ms. Morgan Paladino as our new lab manager. Morgan joins us from the University of Buffalo, NY, where she previously worked with Dr. Greg Loney. Prior to that, Morgan completed her MA in Neuroscience at Trinity College, Ireland, and before that a B.S. in Neuroscience and Behavior at Notre Dame. Welcome, Morgan!

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July 2021: Very happy to have worked with Drs. Anna (Xuan) Li (U Maryland) and Gavan McNally (UNSW) to co-edit a special issue on 'Thalamus and Motivated Behavior' in Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, featuring outstanding articles from the labs of Greg Quirk, Remi Marton-Fardon, Gorica Petrovich, Brian Mathur and many others. You can check out the editorial here.

July 2021: With the new school year fast approaching, we welcome new students! We welcome Alexandra Shumyatsky (Sasha) who will be completing her honors hear in the lab and will be working on RNAseq in a cocaine addiction model. We also welcome Abanoub Armanious who will be working as an undergraduate research assistant, primarily on our projects relating to binge eating disorder. Welcome!

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June 2021: *New Publication* Congratulations to Jackie Mehr for her recent first-author publication in Neuropsychopharmacology. In this paper, we explore the very-understudied problem of sleep dysregulation in binge eating disorder, as well as the potential role of the orexin system in this pathophysiology. We were fortunate to have collaborated with eating disorders expert, Dr Debbie Mitchison, on this paper. Check out the paper here. Watch this space for some exciting data from our lab related to this interesting topic!

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May 2021: We have a new, fully funded postdoc position available in the lab! We are especially interested in someone with molecular neurobiology expertise to work with RNAseq and related approaches to better understand the role of hypothalamic neuropeptides in addiction. For more information on how to apply, see here.

April 2021: Congratulations to Shayna O'Connor from the lab for publishing her first, first-author paper in Neuropharmacology this month. Shayna's data indicates that the sensation seeking trait can predict susceptibility to the addiction-promoting effects of intermittent cocaine self-administration. You can read the paper here.

March 2021: A HUGE congratulations to Jackie Mehr from the lab for being named a 2021 Barry Goldwater Fellow. This is an extremely competitive, nation-wide award, and Jackie was successful among an applicant pool of ~5000 sophomores and juniors. You can read more about the Goldwater program here and read a news article on Jackie here

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March 2021: We are thrilled to have worked with Hao Zhu’s lab at Rutgers Camden on a project where we applied machine learning to publicly available data to identify and prioritize new analgesic opioids with limited off target effects. Particular congratulations to first author Xuelian Jia. Check out the paper here.

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February 2021: Congratulations to Jackie Mehr for being awarded an Undergraduate Research Fellowship by the Rutgers Aresty Research Center! This fellowship will support Jackie to continue her exciting work examining the role of the orexin system in a rodent model of binge eating. 

January 2021: We are thrilled that (soon-to-be) Dr. Utsav Gyawali will soon be joining our lab as a postdoctoral fellow! Utsav will come to us following his graduation from Dr. Donna Calu's lab at U Maryland School of Medicine, and accordingly has outstanding experience with drug self-administration and neuroscience techniques. Good luck wrapping up your Ph.D. Utsav - we look forward to you joining us! 

January 2021: Welcome to Michelle Bilotti who will be rotating in the lab over the Spring semester. Michelle is a first year graduate student in the Joint Graduate Program in Toxicology at Rutgers and brings to our lab several years of experience studying microglia. Welcome!

January 2021: Welcome to the lab Nish Trivedi who is majoring in Cell Biology and Neuroscience and plans to carry out her final year project in our lab. Welcome!


December 2020: A HUGE congratulations to Jackie Mehr for being awarded the Society for Neuroscience Trainee Professional Development Award!

October 2020: Congratulations to Shayna O’Connor on her first publication (first of many, we are sure)! We highlight the orexin system as a promising target for new therapies to treat cocaine and alcohol coabuse, complete with new proof-of-principle data. Check out the paper here.

August 2020: We are honored to highlight an excellent paper by Ellie-Anna Minogianis and Anna Samaha recently published in Neuroscience - they examined cocaine-induced gene regulation in corticostriatal regions using the intermittent access model for cocaine self-administration. Check out their article here and our commentary article here.

August 2020: It's official. The James lab is up and running! We are very excited to join the vibrant (and still growing) neuroscience community here at Rutgers, which includes an outstanding addiction research program. Looking forward to getting started - safely and socially-distanced, of course. We even joined Twitter!

  • Twitter

July 2020: A HUGE congratulations to Jackie Mehr and Orion Yedidia for being named prizewinners at the New Jersey Academy of Science Virtual Research Competition. Jackie tied for first place (!) in the Microbiology Division, and Orion earned an honorable mention. Much deserved! More details available here.

May 2020: Congratulations to Mohita, Orion, and Noah for successfully defending their senior theses and graduating! Mohita is off to medical school at NJMS, Noah is preparing for dental school, and Orion is continuing on as a postbac in the James lab before applying for medical school. A special mention to Orion who received several awards for his thesis, including the Cognitive Neuroscience Award, Henry Rutgers Award, and a Paul Robeson pin. Congratulations to you all - especially given the additional challenges that were thrown at you thanks to COVID-19. Thank you also to Drs. Aston-Jones, Fragale and Bowrey for their co-mentorship. 

March 2020: Check out our special issue (editors Drs. James and Aston-Jones) recently published at Brain Research, featuring 19 articles focused on the orexin system as a potential target for new therapeutics designed to treat substance use disorder and other related diseases. Thanks to all of the contributors!

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