Assistant Professor of Neuroscience Kay M. Tye

Kay M. Tye

Associate Professor of Neuroscience
The Picower Institute for Learning and Memory
Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences
Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Contact Info

Office: 46-6263
Phone: 617-324-8133

Motivated behaviors fall into two valences: Seeking pleasure and avoiding pain. The ability to select appropriate behavioral responses to environmental stimuli, such as avoiding a predator or approaching a food source, is critical for survival. Although most animals are capable of learning to assign either positive or negative associations to environmental cues, we are only beginning to understand the underlying neural circuits and the plasticity that mediates the formation, revision or extinction of an associative memory.

How is emotional or motivational significance assigned to environmental cues?

Where do the circuits processing associative information diverge to differentially encode positive and negative valence?

When there are perturbations in the neural circuits mediating reward processing, fear, motivation, memory or inhibitory control, we may observe a number of disease states such as substance abuse, attention-deficit disorder, anxiety and depression. These are among the most prevalent neuro-psychiatric disorders, and show a high rate of co-morbidity with each other, as patients diagnosed with anxiety or mood disorders are approximately twice as likely to develop a substance abuse disorder.

Do perturbations in common neural circuits processing motivation, memory or affective valence underlie this high-rate of co-morbidity? Can emotional states such as increased anxiety alter a given experience and increase the propensity for substance abuse by facilitating long-term changes associated with reward-related learning? If so, what is the mechanism?

The Tye lab employs an interdisciplinary approach including optogenetics, electrophysiology, pharmacology and imaging techniques to find a mechanistic explanation for how emotional and motivational states can influence learning and behavior, in both health and disease. In addition to scientific excellence and integrity, top values of the Tye Laboratory include mentorship, collaboration, innovation and above all, a positive mental attitude.

Kay M. Tye received her bachelor’s degree in Brain and Cognitive Sciences from MIT in 2003, and earned her PhD in 2008 at UCSF with Patricia Janak.  Her thesis work was supported by the National Science Foundation and recognized with the Lindsley Prize in Behavioral Neuroscience as well as the Weintraub Award in Biosciences.  She completed her postdoctoral training with Karl Deisseroth at Stanford University in 2011, with support from an NRSA from NIMH.  She joined the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences and The Picower Institute at MIT in 2012, and has since been recognized with the NIH Director’s New Innovator Award, Technology Review’s Top 35 Innovators under 35, and has been named a Whitehall, Klingenstein and Sloan Foundation Fellow.

  • 2017 NIH Director's Pioneer Award
  • 2013-2018 NIH Director’s New Innovator Award ($1.5M direct costs over 5 years)
  • 2014-2015 Sloan Research Fellow, Alfred P. Sloan Foundation
  • 2014 TR35, Technology Review’s Top 35 Innovators Under 35
Featured publications are below. For a full list visit the lab website linked above.

February 15, 2018
Tye KM, Prakash R, Kim SY, Fenno LE, Grosenick L, Zarabi H, Thompson KR, Gradinaru V, Ramakrishnan C, Deisseroth K. Nature. 2011 Mar 17;471(7338):358-62
June 26, 2017
Wang W, Wildes CP, Pattarabanjird T, Sanchez MI, Glober GF, Matthews GA, Tye KM, Ting AY.
Nat Biotechnol
April 24, 2017
Burgos-Robles A, Kimchi EY, Izadmehr EM, Porzenheim MJ, Ramos-Guasp WA, Nieh EH, Felix-Ortiz AC, Namburi P, Leppla CA, Presbrey KN, Anandalingam KK, Pagan-Rivera P, Anahtar M, Beyeler A, Tye KM.
Nat Neurosci. 2017 Jun;20(6):824-835
May 27, 2016
Nieh EH, Vander Weele CM, Matthews GA, Presbrey KN, Wichmann R, Leppla CA, Izadmehr EM, Tye KM.
Neuron. 2016 May 26. pii: S0896-6273(16)30122-2
March 31, 2016
Beyeler A, Namburi P, Glober GF, Simonnet C, Calhoon GG, Conyers GF, Luck R, Wildes CP, Tye KM.
Neuron. 2016 Apr 20;90(2):348-361

A delicate balance between positive and negative emotion

October 17, 2016
Research Findings
Neuroscientists identify two neuron populations that encode happy or fearful memories.

Brain circuit enables split-second decisions when cues conflict

April 24, 2017
Research Findings
New findings shed light on how we quickly assess risks and rewards before acting.

Kay Tye receives Freedman Prize for Exceptional Basic Research

August 3, 2016
Neuroscientist recognized by the Brain and Behavior Research Foundation for project on neural circuits for anxiety control.

Kay Tye Receives the Society for Neuroscience Young Investigator Award

November 15, 2016
Picower Neuroscientist recognized for her work on emotional circuitry of the brain.

New tool offers snapshots of neuron activity

June 26, 2017
FLARE technique can reveal which cells respond during different tasks.

Scientists identify brain circuit that drives pleasure-inducing behavior

March 22, 2017
Research Findings
Surprisingly, the neurons are located in a brain region thought to be linked with fear.

Matilde Borio

Ellie Brewer

Anthony Burgos-Robles
Postdoctoral Fellow / NARSAD Young Investigator

Gwendolyn Calhoon
Postdoctoral Associate

Chia-Jung Chang
Graduate Student

Hannah Chen

Abby Finkelstein
Graduate Student

Maya Jay

Eyal Kimchi
Postdoctoral Associate

Chris Leppla

Clémentine Lévêque

Avi Libster
Postdoctoral Associate

Yi Ning Leow

Gillian Matthews
Postdoctoral / Simons Fellow

Fergil Mills
Postdoctoral Fellow

David Murphy
Graduate Student

Praneeth Namburi
Graduate Student

Jacob Olson
Postdoctoral Fellow

Nancy Padilla Coreano
Postdoctoral Fellow

Cody Siciliano
Postdoctoral Fellow

Amy Sutton
Postdoctoral Fellow

Caitlin Vander Weele
Graduate Student / NSF Fellow

Joyce Wang
Graduate Student

Javier C. Weddington
Technical Associate

Romy Wichmann
Postdoctoral Fellow

Craig Wildes
Research Scientist

Winnie Yang


Massachusetts Institute of Technology
43 Vassar Street, Bldg. 46-1303
Cambridge, MA 02139
(+1) 617-324-0305
(+1) 617-452-2588