Assistant Professor of Neuroscience Steven Flavell

Steven Flavell

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 joined the faculty of MIT and The Picower Instiute for Learning and Memory in 2016. He received his B.A. From Oberlin College and his Ph.D. from Harvard University, where we worked with Dr. Michael Greenberg. Before arriving at MIT, Steve worked as a postdoctoral fellow in Dr. Cori Bargmann’s lab at Rockefeller University. Research in the Flavell Lab is aimed at deciphering the fundamental neural mechanisms that underlie the generation of long-lasting behavioral states. This work primarily focuses on the neuromodulatory systems that control arousal, motivation, and mood across organisms. Steve’s work has uncovered novel molecular mechanisms that allow signals from the gut to activate neuromodulatory systems, as well as circuit-level mechanisms by which neuromodulator release alters neural circuit dynamics. Steve’s work has been recognized by numerous national awards, including the Weintraub Graduate Student Award, Helen Hay Whitney Fellowship, NARSAD Young Investigator Award, NSF CAREER Award, Sloan Research Fellowship, and McKnight Scholars Award.

  • 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.

May 15, 2023
Ugur Dag, Ijeoma Nwabudike, Di Kang, Matthew A. Gomes, Jungsoo Kim, Adam A. Atanas, Eric Bueno, Cassi Estrem, Sarah Puglies, Ziyu Wang, Emma Towlson, Steven W. Flavell. Cell, May 15, 2023,
August 31, 2022
Ian G McLachlan, Talya S Kramer, Malvika Dua, Elizabeth M DiLoreto, Matthew A Gomes, Ugur Dag, Jagan Srinivasan, Steven W Flavell. (2022), eLife 11:e79557
May 27, 2022
Steven W. Flavell, Nadine Gogolla, Matthew Lovett-Barron,,Moriel Zelikowsky. Neuron. VOLUME 110, ISSUE 16, P2545-2570, May 27, 2022
November 18, 2021
Ni Ji, Gurrein K Madan, Guadalupe I Fabre, Alyssa Dayan, Casey M Baker, Talya S Kramer, Ijeoma Nwabudike, Steven W Flavell, eLife 2021;10:e62889 doi: 10.7554/eLife.62889
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.

Livestreaming the Brain

March 15, 2024
Research Feature
To learn how the brain works, Picower Institute labs are advancing technologies and methods to watch it live as it happens

Study shows how a single neuron’s parallel outputs can coordinate many aspects of behavior

September 27, 2023
Research Findings
In C. elegans worms, a single neuron named HSN uses multiple chemicals and connections to orchestrate egg-laying and locomotion over the course of several minutes

Cracking the code that relates brain and behavior in a simple animal

August 21, 2023
Research Findings
MIT researchers model and map how neurons across the tiny brain of a C. elegans worm encode its behaviors, revealing many new insights about the robustness and flexibility of its nervous system

Petite & Profound

June 22, 2023
Research Feature
Why studying simple organisms—none larger than the palm of your hand—is so integral to understanding nervous system health, disease and evolution.

From molecular to whole-brain scale in a simple animal, study reveals serotonin’s effects

May 15, 2023
With full genetic control and visibility into neural activity and behavior, MIT scientists map out chemical’s role in behavior

Simple animal model reveals how environment and state are integrated to control behavior

September 6, 2022
Research Findings
A new study shows how stimuli and states such as smells, stressors and satiety converge in an olfactory neuron to guide food-seeking behavior

At a research forefront, young scholar looks ahead to graduate school, chance to mentor others

August 15, 2022
Picower People
As he works to solve an advanced problem at the intersection of computing and neurobiology, Picower Institute post-baccalaureate scholar Eric Bueno is also thinking of how he could pay his experience forward

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

Summer students thrive in Picower labs

August 11, 2021
Picower People
Undergraduates from colleges across the country gain scientific training, mentorship and experience as participants in the MIT Summer Research Program

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