Assistant Professor of Neuroscience Steven Flavell

Steven Flavell

Lister Brothers Career Development Professor
Investigator in The Picower Institute for Learning and Memory
Associate Professor, Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences
Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Contact Info

Office: 46-4243
Phone: 617-715-2605

Administrative Assistant

Katherine Olson
Office: 46-4243A
Phone: 617-452-2662

Action potentials and synaptic transmission occur over the time scale of milliseconds, yet the brain generates behaviors that can last seconds, minutes, or hours. A major goal of neuroscience is to understand how neural circuits generate coherent behavioral outputs across such a wide range of time scales. Long-lasting behavioral states—including arousal states (sleep, wake) and complex internal states (emotions)—are thought to be controlled by biogenic amine and neuropeptide neuromodulators. However, we still have a poor understanding of the basic neural mechanisms that underlie behavioral state initiation, maintenance and termination. Moreover, it is unclear how external and internal cues, like satiety status, alter the outputs of the neural circuits that control these states. The goal of our laboratory is to understand how neural circuits generate sustained behavioral states, and how physiological and environmental information is integrated into these circuits.

The problem of studying the interactions between neuromodulators, neural circuits, and behavioral states can be simplified in the nematode C. elegans. In addition to classical neurotransmitters, the C. elegans nervous system utilizes neuropeptides as well as biogenic amines like serotonin and dopamine. The nervous system of C. elegans is a simple, well-defined model system: it contains exactly 302 neurons, every neuron can be reproducibly identified in every animal, and a complete connectome has defined all of the synaptic contacts between these neurons. In addition, we can use a variety of precise genetic tools to manipulate each neuron in this nervous system.

By combining quantitative behavioral analyses with genetics, in vivo calcium imaging, and optogenetics, we have mapped out neural circuits that generate behavioral states and characterized the activity of neurons within these circuits during different behavioral states. Our current research aims to expand our knowledge of how neuromodulators like serotonin organize the circuit-wide patterns of neuronal activity that emerge from these circuits as animals switch between behavioral states. We are also investigating how these neuromodulatory circuits integrate environmental and physiological cues that influence behavioral state generation, such as satiety status.

Steve Flavell completed his undergraduate work at Oberlin College, majoring in Neuroscience. He then pursued graduate studies in Harvard University’s PhD program in Neuroscience. Working the lab of Michael Greenberg, Steve investigated the mechanisms by which neuronal activity alters gene expression to regulate synapse development and function. His work blended molecular and cellular neurobiology with genomic approaches and was recognized with the Weintraub Graduate Student Award. To gain experience in behavioral neuroscience, Steve then worked as a postdoctoral fellow in Cori Bargmann’s lab at Rockefeller University, supported by a fellowship from the Helen Hay Whitney Foundation. As a postdoc, he utilized the simple nervous system of the nematode C. elegans to ask a fundamental question: how do animals generate long-lasting behavioral states? Using a combination of behavioral recordings, genetics, in vivo calcium imaging, and optogenetics, Steve characterized a neural circuit capable of generating persistent locomotor states that last from minutes to hours. He will be joining the faculty of MIT in January 2016, as an assistant professor in Brain and Cognitive Sciences and the Picower Institute for Learning and Memory.

  • 2021  - Sloan Research Fellow
  • 2020 - McKnight Scholars Award
  • 2019 - NSF CAREER Award
  • 2019 - BCS Award for Excellence in Graduate Mentoring
  • 2017 NARSAD Young Investigator Award
  • 2016 Newton Brain Science Award
  • 2010 Helen Hay Whitney Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowship
  • 2008 Harold M. Weintraub Graduate Student Award
  • 2006 Certificate of Distinction in Teaching Award, Harvard University
  • 2005 Albert J. Ryan Fellowship, Harvard University
Featured publications are below. For a full list visit the lab website linked above.

June 8, 2020
Nathan Cermak, Stephanie K Yu, Rebekah Clark, Yung-Chi Huang, Saba N Baskoylu, Steven Flavell, eLife 2020;9:e57093 doi: 10.7554/eLife.57093.
December 20, 2018
Jeffrey L. Rhoades, Jessica C. Nelson, Ijeoma Nwabudike, Stephanie K. Yu, Ian G. McLachlan, Gurrein K. Madan, Eden Abebe, Joshua R. Powers, Daniel A. Colón-Ramos, Steven W. Flavell, Cell, Dec. 20, 2018, Volume 176, ISSUE 1, P85-97.e14,
March 12, 2015
Gordus A, Pokala N, Levy S, Flavell SW, Bargmann CI. Cell. 2015 Apr 9;161(2):215-27.
August 22, 2013
Flavell SW, Pokala N, Macosko EZ, Albrecht DR, Larsch J, Bargmann CI. Cell. 2013 Aug 29;154(5):1023-1035.
December 26, 2008
Flavell SW, Kim TK, Gray JM, Harmin DA, Hemberg M, Hong EJ, Markenscoff-Papadimitriou E, Bear DM, Greenberg ME. Neuron. 2008 Dec 26;60(6):1022-38.

Feast or forage: Study finds circuit that helps a brain decide

November 22, 2021
Research Findings
By integrating multiple sensory inputs, a loop of mutual inhibition among a small set of neurons allows worms to switch between long-lasting behavioral states

'What Were you Thinking?'

September 20, 2021
Research Feature
How brain circuits integrate many sources of context to flexibly guide behavior

Steven Flavell earns Sloan Research Fellowship

February 16, 2021
Picower People
Award supports fundamental research on how the brain generates internal states that guide animal behavior

Dopamine signaling allows neural circuits to generate coordinated behaviors

June 11, 2020
Research Findings
As part of study, team invents new open-source microscopy platform

McKnight Scholars Award supports Flavell lab’s gut-brain connection studies

May 28, 2020
Picower People
Award will help researchers understand how the body’s microbiome influences the brain

With sophisticated tools in a simple model, scientists aim to learn how serotonin modulates behavior

February 20, 2020
New Research
New NIH grant funds study that will span receptors, cells, the whole brain and behavior

Neuroscientists look to the body to better understand the brain

July 1, 2019
News Feature
Studies yield new insights into behavior, development, anesthesia

NSF ‘CAREER’ award helps fund Flavell lab study of behavioral states

February 12, 2019
Picower People
Research will probe how states like sleep emerge and are sustained

Gut-brain connection signals worms to alter behavior while eating

December 20, 2018
Research findings
Study may lead to a better understanding of the digestive tract’s nervous system

Flavell earns School of Science named professorship

July 23, 2018
Tapped as the Lister Brothers Career Development Professor

Please see the Flavell lab people page for an up-to-date listing.