Donald A Wilson, Ph.D.

Professor,(tenured) Department of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, and
Department of Neuroscience & Physiology
New York University School of Medicine
Senior Research Scientist, and Deputy Director, Emotional Brain Institute
Nathan Kline Institute for Psychiatric Research
Affiliated Professor, Department of Biology
University of Oklahoma

NYU faculty website

Phone: 845-398-2178
FAX: 845-398-2193
email:  or  or


My lab and I are interested in how the mammalian brain processes and remembers information. As a model system we focus on rodent (rats and mice)  discrimination and memory for odors.  Using electrophysiological, behavioral, genetic, neuroanatomical and pharmacological approaches we explore the neurobiology of memory and the role of experience in sensory system function.  The underlying hypothesis of much of our work is that memory plays a critical role in even basic sensory discrimination. That is, your perception of the world is not static but reflects your past experiences. Some specific questions we are addressing include: how does sensory experience shape odor discrimination?; how does sensory encoding reflect hedonic/emotional associations of odors?; what role does sleep play in olfactory perceptual learning?; how do local neural circuits and larger regional networks interact to shape perception and memory? In addition, we are interested in how experience early in life (Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder), or aging and dementia (Alzheimer's disease) can influence sensory system function.  Our current research is funded by the National Institutes of Health.


Yaniv Cohen, Ph.D. - post-doc investigating interhemispheric asymmetry contributons to odor memory and perception
Emmanuelle Courtiol, Ph.D. - post-doc investigating dorsomedial thalamus contributions to olfaction
Gloria Fleming, B.S. - lab tech investigating mouse odor discrimination
Monica Lewin, B.S. - Ph.D. student exploring the relationship between the enduring consequences of early life trauma and sleep
Maria Ilana, B.S. - lab tech investigating the role of sleep in the long-lasting consequences of developmental ethanol exposure

TEDx talk in Leuwen Belgium
Recent TEDx talk in a TEDx salon on the senses

In the news:

Interview on NPR's Science Friday, on the "Science of Smell",  August 2010.
Scientific American commentary on recent Wesson & Wilson, Journal of Neuroscience 2010 paper.
Faculty of 1000 highlight of recent Barnes et al., Nature Neuroscience 2008 paper.
Scientific American "Ask the Experts" answer about olfaction, 2007.

Full Curriculum Vita (pdf)

Some representative papers:

Kadohisa, M. and Wilson, D.A. Separate encoding of identity and similarity of complex familiar odors in piriform cortex. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (USA), 2006, 103:15206-15211.

Barnes, D., Hofacer, R., Zaman, A., Rennaker, R.L. and Wilson, D.A. Olfactory perceptual stability and discrimination. Nature Neuroscience, 2008, 11: 1378-1380.

Wesson, D.W., Levy, E., Nixon, R.A. and Wilson, D.A. Olfactory dysfunction correlates with amyloid-β burden in an Alzheimer’s disease mouse model. Journal of Neuroscience, 2010, 30:505-514.

Wilson, D.A. and Sullivan, R.M. Cortical processing of odor objects. Neuron, 2011, 72:506-519.

Chapuis, J. and Wilson, D.A. Bidirectional plasticity of cortical pattern recognition and behavioral sensory acuity, Nature Neuroscience, 2012, 15:155-161.

Cramer, P.E., Cirrito J.R., Wesson, D.W., Lee, C.Y.D., Karlo, J.C., Zinn, A.E., Restivo, J.L., Goebel, W.D., James, M.J., Brunden, K.R., Wilson, D.A. and Landreth, G.E. ApoE-directed therapeutics rapidly clear β-amyloid and reverse deficits in mouse models of Alzheimer’s disease. Science, 2012, 335:1503-1506.

Barnes, D.C. and Wilson, D.A. Slow-wave sleep-imposed replay modulates both strength and precision of memory. Journal of Neuroscience, 2014, 34: 5134-5142.

Cohen, Y., Putrino, D. and Wilson, D.A. Dynamic cortical lateralization during olfactory discrimination learning. Journal of Physiology, 2015, 593(7):1701-1714.

Sadrian, B. and Wilson, D.A.  Optogenetic stimulation of lateral amygdala input to posterior piriform cortex modulates single-snit and ensemble odor processing. Front Neural Circuits. 2015 Dec 21;9:81. doi: 10.3389/fncir.2015.00081

Courtiol, E. and Wilson, D.A. Neural representation of odor-guided behavior in the rat olfactory thalamus. Journal of Neuroscience, 2016, 36(22):5946-5960.

BOOKS: Wilson, D.A. and Stevenson, R. J. Learning to Smell: Olfactory Perception from Neurobiology to Behavior. Johns Hopkins Press, 336 pages, 2006.
Reviews of "Learning to Smell"
    "A landmark that may reshape efforts in this field", Khan and Sobel, Nature Neuroscience, 2007, 10:7.
    "Essential reading for any student or researcher entering, or already working, in the field of olfaction." Graham Bell, ChemoSense, 2006.

Barkai, E. and Wilson, D.A. (Editors). Odor Memory and Perception. Progress in Brain Research, volume 208.
Elsevier, Oxford, UK, 2014.

ensemble data

The ability of neural ensembles in the primary olfactory sensory cortex (piriform cortex) to distinquish between complex overlapping mixtures of odors varies with behavioral ability to discriminate those mixtures. Rats were training in a two alternative forced choice task (Left). Ensembles in naive rats decorrelate some but not most mixtures (pseudocolor plot left).  After initial training, but while still performing at chance levels, cortical ensemble lose the ability to decorrelate most mixtures (pseudocolor plot top).  However, with successful training and good behavioral performance, ensembles now decorrelate all overlapping mixtures (pseudocolor plot right).  From Chapuis & Wilson, 2012.

Last update 6/2016

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