João Peça, PhD - Group Leader
I grew up and studied in Coimbra, Portugal where I received my Licentiate degree in Biochemistry (2004, UC). During this time I worked and volunteered in the laboratories of Carlos Faro, Sandra Macedo-Ribeiro and Carlos Duarte where I gained expertise in molecular biology, protein biochemistry and cell biology. In 2005, I was selected to the BEB international PhD program and moved to Durham, North Carolina where I worked with Guoping Feng at Duke University. During my Ph.D. (2011), I created the first transgenic mice for channelrhodopsin-2, at the time a novel tool that greatly facilitated optogenetic-assisted dissection of neuronal circuitry. In 2011, I moved to MIT as a postdoctoral fellow funded by the Autism Speaks Foundation and characterized the Shank3 gene. In 2013, I was named “FCT Investigator” and offered a position in the Synapse Biology Group at the Center for Neuroscience and Cell Biology. In 2018, I became Principal Investigator and started an independent group at CNC – the “Neuronal Circuits and Behavioral Laboratory”.
I am currently Assistant Professor at the Department of Life Sciences, Faculty of Science and Technology, University of Coimbra, teaching classes ranging from molecular biology to neuronal circuit analysis. Currently, my group is focused on understanding the genetic and environmental effects that modulate circuit assembly and function. We devote significant efforts towards understanding the function of neurodevelopmental associated genes and the dissecting the role of neuroimmune interplay in brain development. While tackling these questions, our projects aimed at understanding how specific neuronal circuits control animal behavior in health and disease states. To achieve this we use a combination of mouse molecular genetics, in vivo and ex vivo electrophysiology, behavioral tests, optogenetic manipulations and more recently, organoid technology.
To date I have been Lead PI in seven (7) , co-PI in three (3) and member of the team in two (2) grant projects, for more than 2.2M euros in competitive funding. A total of 4 Ph.D. students and 10 MSc students have graduate under my direct supervision.
My work has accrued >3500 citations and as led to primary research papers in high impact, peer-reviewed journals, including Nature, Nature Communications, PNAS, and Neuron, and review work in Current Opinion in Neurobiology, Cell and Annual Reviews in Neuroscience. Recently, our work was acknowledged with the “2019 Pfizer Prize” in Basic Research, the oldest and one of the most prestigious prizes in the area of Biomedical Sciences in Portugal.
Ana Luisa Cardoso, PhD - Senior Researcher
I am originally from Coimbra and graduated in Biochemistry from the University of Coimbra (UC) in 2004. In the same year I received an international Ph.D scholarship to work on the development of lipid-based nanoparticles for treatment of acute brain lesions, under the supervision of Prof. Conceição Pedroso de Lima (Biochemistry Department, UC) and Prof. Sérgio Simões (Faculty of Pharmacy, UC and Bluepharma). This project was performed in collaboration with Prof. Ernst Wagner (Faculty of Pharmacy, LMU, Munich, Germany) and Prof. Nikolaus Plesnila (Institute for Stroke and Dementia Research, LMU), giving me the opportunity to work in both their laboratories between 2006 and 2007.
After obtaining my Ph.D. in Biochemical Technology in 2008, I integrated CNC.IBILI as a Post Doc, aiming to investigate the role of miRNA deregulation in CNS diseases, including glioblastoma and Alzheimer’s disease (AD). In 2013, I was granted a two-year position as Invited Assistant Investigator at UC to work in the EU funded project “New strategies to manage brain diseases” and from 2013 to 2016 I was able to focus my research in the field that I am truly passionate about, which is Neuroimmunology. During this period, I investigated the contribution of miRNAs to the modulation of brain immunity and microglia function, which allowed me to start my trek to scientific independence.
In 2018, I accepted a new professional challenge and integrated, as a Senior Researcher, the recently formed Neuronal Circuits and Behavior Group, led by Dr. João Peça. My most recent work has focused on understanding the crosstalk between the immune system and neuronal homeostasis mechanisms, with the ultimate goal of unveiling the role of chronic and acute neuroinflammatory events, such as those observed following exposure to early life stress, in synaptic architecture and in the development of neuropsychiatric and neurodegenerative disorders.
Since 2005 I have published 34 peer-review papers, including original work in Nature Communications, Neuropsychopharmacology, Journal of Controlled Release and Alzheimer & Dementia, as well as reviews in Aging Research Reviews and Expert Opinion in Pharmacology. I have also successfully supervised 9 Master and 3 Ph.D students and organized/participated in several international Advanced Courses, academic juries and international Consortiums.
Catarina Seabra, PhD
I initiated my scientific path at the University of Aveiro where I enrolled in the Biomedical Sciences course followed by a Master’s degree in Molecular Biomedicine. My first scientific project was developed at the Population Genetics Group, at IPATIMUP, Porto, with a focus on the genetic variants underlying male infertility. For my PhD, I was selected for the competitive GABBA Program of the University of Porto, which allowed me to obtain international experience in Boston, USA, at the Molecular Neurogenetics Unit of the Center for Genomic Medicine and Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard. During this period, I built a strong background in different scientific fields from human genetics to neurodevelopment, stem cells and gene editing with CRISPR/Cas9, as I worked on the functional genetics of autism and contributed to publications in journals such as Nature Genetics, Nature Neuroscience and Molecular Autism.
In 2018, I was awarded a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Individual Fellowship by the European Commission to implement a novel line of research at the Peça Lab, Center for Neuroscience and Cell Biology (CNC), Coimbra, to develop 3D brain organoids to study neurodevelopmental disorders such as autism, in collaboration with the Pediatric Hospital of Coimbra (HP-CHUC, EPE) and the Faculty of Medicine (FMUC). As an educator, I have supervised undergraduate, Master and PhD students and taught advanced PhD-level courses at the University of Coimbra. Besides, I am an avid advocate of public engagement and education outreach and had the opportunity to reach large audiences through interviews for different media channels from national television to radio.
Joana Guedes, PhD
I am originally from Oeiras, although I moved to the north of Portugal at the age of 10. Coimbra was the city I choose to pursue my bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Biochemistry. In 2011, I was selected to the BEB international PhD program where I studied under the supervision of Conceição Pedroso de Lima and Ana Luísa Cardoso at the Vectors and Gene Therapy Group. During my PhD, I dissected the role of miRNAs in the phenotype of monocytes in Alzheimer’s disease. I the last year of my PhD, I was a visiting researcher at the Massachusetts General Hospital (Boston, USA) where I collaborated with Joseph El Khoury, a world-renowned neuroimmunologist.
In 2016, I started my postdoctoral studies at the Peça lab, focusing on the effects of environmental and genetic insults in neurodevelopmental disorders. Here, I had the opportunity to explore my main research interest: understand how microglia dysfunction underlie circuit and behavioral deficits. I became particularly interested in the cerebellum, a brain region involved in several neuropsychiatric disorders. Importantly, I trained as an electrophysiologist. In 2017 I was awarded a competitive FCT postdoctoral scholarship mentored by João Peça and Gouping Feng (MIT). Since then I have been involved in several research projects in the lab.
Overall, I published 15 peer-reviewed papers and book chapters, namely in high impact journals, such as Nature Communications, Neuropsychopharmacology, Journal of Neuroinflammation and Alzheimer & Dementia. Additionally, I was an author/co-author of 18 posters and oral presentations in international conferences.
From a social point of view, I believe in bringing people together to disseminate knowledge, having participated in several outreach activities. Also, I have been part of organizations and forums, such as the Portuguese American Postgraduate Society and the CNC.IBILI postdoctoral researchers aiming at debating alternative scientific paths.
Carolina Kunicki, PhD - Visiting Researcher
I received my PhD in Neuroscience from the University of São Paulo, Brazil (2007 – 2012), funded by Sao Paulo Research Foundation (FAPESP) scholarship, a highly competitive grant. I investigated the role of the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex in recent and remote memories under the supervision of Prof. Koichi Sameshima. I developed my PhD collaborating with Prof. Miguel Nicolelis Lab (Duke University) and Prof. Sidarta Ribeiro Lab (Federal University of Rio Grande do Norte). This was a period of great learning as I acquired expertise in animal behavior, stereotaxic surgery, building microelectrodes arrays, large-scale multi-unit recording, as well as in immunohistochemical and optical microscopy methods. In 2012 I received a position as a postdoctoral researcher at the Edmond and Lily Safra International Neuroscience Institute (IIN-ELS, Macaíba, Brasil) under the supervision of Prof. Miguel Nicolelis. Then I engaged in the “Brain to brain project,” where we demonstrated the principles of direct information transfer between the brains of two rats.
In 2015 I took the position of Assistant Professor at IIN-ELS and furthered the studies on neural dynamics in tactile discrimination. In 2018 I was awarded a competitive grant from CNPq (2018), as a project leader to develop new neuroprosthetic devices to restore tactile function. This enabled me to start working as an independent researcher. I established new national and international collaborations, taught postgraduate classes, supervised Master degree students, and took on administrative positions as deputy coordinator of the Neuroengineering Master’s Program.
In 2021 I started a new challenge working with the Neuronal Circuits and Behavior Group led by Prof. João Peça at the Center for Neuroscience and Cell Biology (CNC). My focus at this Institute is to add my knowledge in electrophysiology with the registration of multiple brain regions to investigate the neural circuits involved in social behavior.
Rafaela Oliveira, MSc
Ana Rafaela Oliveira obtained a Bachelor degree in Biochemistry and a Master degree in Cellular and Molecular Biology, both from the University of Coimbra (UC, Portugal). She initiated her path in science in the Molecular and Microbial Biotechnology Group at Center for Neuroscience and Cell Biology (CNC, Portugal) under the supervision of Professor Paula Veríssimo, on a project in aspartic proteases inhibitor’s. During her master’s, she joined the Vectors and Gene Therapy Group at CNC, where she worked under the supervision of Doctor Ana Luísa Cardoso, in the field of Alzheimer’s disease and gene therapies. Afterwards, she joined the Cancer Biology and Targeted Therapies Group at CNC, led by Professor João Nuno Moreira and the Molecular Microbiology and Biotechnology group at iMed.ULisboa, led by Professor João Gonçalves, where she worked with antibodies engineering. During these periods, she worked with human samples, cell lines, virus, phages and she developed strong practical knowledge in several cell culture, cell biology, molecular biology and biochemistry techniques, including immunocytochemistry, flow cytometry, cloning, qPCRs, western blots, protein purification and phage display technology. Currently, Ana Rafaela Oliveira is a PhD student in the MIT Portugal PhD program at the NOVA University of Lisbon (FCTUNL, Portugal) and she is doing her PhD thesis under the supervision of João Peça. She is working with 3D brain organoids differentiated from dental stem cells, in order to obtain robust models to study human neurodevelopmental disorders. During her PhD, she has been acquiring new skills in the field of stem cells engineering, including reprogramming, CRISPR/Cas9, brain organoids and electrophysiology techniques.
Mariana Laranjo, MSc
Mariana Laranjo obtained a bachelor’s degree in Biochemistry and a master’s degree in Cellular and Molecular Biology, both from the University of Coimbra (UC, Portugal). During the bachelor, she joined the Biological Chemistry’s group (at Coimbra Chemistry Centre), which focused on the use of metallodrugs in medical imaging. She tested the therapeutic proprieties and viability of different metallodrugs as an anticancer drug. Then, during her master, she joined the Neuronal Circuits and Behavior Group (NCBL), for her thesis work, which was focused on studying the role of Gprasp2 on GPCR biology. She mainly focused on understanding metabotropic glutamate receptor regulation in the Gprasp2 full KO mice. During this time, she developed practical skills in molecular biology, behavior and imaging techniques, including in organotypic slices, protein extraction, western blot, genotyping, bright-field and confocal microscopy, immunohistochemistry, nissil staining, retro-orbital injections, viral infection and behavior. Currently, Mariana Laranjo is a PhD student in the Experimental Biology and Biomedicine (PDBEB) program at the University of Coimbra (UC, Portugal), under the supervision of Joao Peça. Her PhD is focused on understanding the role of parvalbumin (PV) inhibitory neurons in the deficits observed in the Gprasp2 full knockout (KO) mice using different approaches, such as behaviour and electrophysiology, aiming to dissect the role of parvalbumin neurons both in normal brain function and in neuropathological conditions. She has been refining and acquiring new skills in the mouse behavior, electrophysiology, viral tail injections, qRT-PCR, immunohistochemistry and confocal imaging. Additionally, she is collaborating closely with the Science and Communication Office at CNC to enhance her communication skills and to present her work to different audiences.
Pedro Ferreira, MSc
Pedro Ferreira obtained his Bachelor degree in Biochemistry and Master degree in Cellular and Molecular Biology, both at the University of Coimbra, his hometown. He started his journey in the Peça lab during his Bachelor’s, working on neuronal morphology analysis in an animal model of early-life stress, he later shifted his focus towards the role of microglia in brain development and neuropsychiatric disorders, developing his Master thesis co-supervised by João Peça and Joana Guedes. During this time, he gained expertise in several techniques including immunohistochemistry and confocal imaging, flow cytometry and qRT-PCRs, as well as whole-cell patch clamp electrophysiology and varied mouse behavioral assays. As of 2019 he is enrolled in the PhD in Biosciences at the University of Coimbra, having been awarded an FCT Scholarship to pursue his project in which he will use imaging, electrophysiological and behavioral assays to understand the role of IL-4 in modulating the developmental programme of microglia. Apart from these techniques, Pedro has diversified his skillset by delving into Python-based programming, developing scripts and workflows for automated mouse behavior analysis and data clustering, electronics, now working on building a low-cost open-source multi-purpose operant chamber, while also practicing scientific illustration to better display his work.
Giuseppe Cammarata, MRes
I completed my Bachelor in Biological Science at the Tuscia University in Italy. In this period, I have participated in the Erasmus+ program in Krakow where I studied Molecular Biology at the Jagiellonian University. During the bachelor’s degree, I worked as an intern on the in vitro model of Parkinson at the ENEA institute under the supervision of Roberta Meschini and Claudia Consales. From this experience, I gained practical knowledge in the use of neuroblastoma cultures, and mammalian primary isolated neuronal cultures, PCR, NanoDrop and pyrosequencing. After the bachelor’s degree, I completed my Research Master’s degree in Neuroscience at the Erasmus University Rotterdam in the Netherlands. During my MRes, I worked as an intern student in the Neuropsychiatry department under the supervision of Steven A. Kushner. In that period, I worked on the establishment of human cortical spheroids as a human in vitro model of human cortical development. Beyond the human cortical spheroid technique, I gained experience in the use of human stem cell cultures to generate 3D cultures and confocal microscopy and immunohistochemistry to assess cortical development. Currently, I am a Ph.D. student at the Coimbra university in the Syn2Psy program that is part of the EU funded Marie Sklodowska-Curie initiative. Under the supervision of João Peça, I am working on the effects of valproic acid exposure on human brain organoid development. During this period, I am acquiring experience in using the following methods: calcium imaging, electrophysiology recordings, western blot analysis, qPCR assays, and 3D neuronal reconstruction.
Jéssica Costa, MSc
Jéssica Costa obtained her bachelor’s degree in Biomedical Pharmacy and her master’s degree in Biomedical Research both at the University of Coimbra. During her master´s she joined the Neuronal Circuits and Behavior Group (NCBL), for her thesis work, which was focused on unraveling the impact of early-life stress on microglia morphology and function in the medial pre-frontal cortex under the supervision of Doctor Ana Luísa Cardoso. During this time, she gained expertise in several techniques including immunohistochemistry and confocal imaging, qRT-PCRs, as well several mouse behavioral assays. Afterwards, she joined the Synapse Biology Group, at CNC, led by Professor Ana Luísa Carvalho where she worked under the supervision of Doctor Paulo Pinheiro, in the characterization of the neuronal functions of SNAP-29. In 2019, she enrolled in the Experimental Biology and Biomedicine (BEB) PhD program at the University of Coimbra after being awarded an FCT Scholarship to pursue her project which aims to use behavioral, imaging and electrophysiological techniques to further characterize the impact of early-life stress-induced microglia dysfunction in the medial prefrontal cortex inhibitory circuit wiring and in oligodendrogenesis.
Marta Pereira, MSc
My scientific path started with a bachelor’s degree in Biochemistry from the University of Porto. During this period, I was able to join the Nerve Regeneration group at the Institute for Research and Innovation in Health (I3S, Porto), led by Mónica Sousa, where I focused on finding possible therapeutic targets for an animal model of Krabbe’s Disease. I then came to Coimbra for a Master’s in Cellular and Molecular Biology in the University of Coimbra. During this time, I joined the Neuronal Circuits and Behavior group where I did my master thesis on the characterization of a novel animal model (Gprasp2 KO mouse) as a model for neuropsychiatric disorders. During this period, I was able to gain expertise in several techniques such as confocal microscopy, animal behavioral paradigms, qRT-PCR and viral injections. Currently, I am a PhD student in the Inter-University Doctoral Program in Aging and Chronic Diseases (PhDOC), under supervision of João Peça. My work aims to dissect the role of GPRASP2 in hypothalamic function focusing on female-related behavioral alterations (maternal and social behaviors), circadian rhythms and on the impact of GPRASP2 deletion on the electrophysiological properties of different neuronal populations within the hypothalamus.
Marcos Gomes, MSc
Marcos received his B.S. in Biology from the University of Porto in 2010 and his M.S. in Experimental Pathology from the University of Coimbra in 2013. After his M.S. he worked in the field of Molecular Neuroscience, focusing in neurodegenerative diseases in Tiago Outeiro’s lab at iMM Lisboa, as a Research Fellow. After receiving his fellowship for the Doctoral Programme in Experimental Biology and Biomedicine at the University of Coimbra, he joined João Peça’s Lab at the CNC-UC and Guoping Feng’s lab at MIT in 2016. He is focused on understanding the role of GPRASP2 in the hypothalamic (dys)function involved in feeding, metabolism and obesity.
Solange Martins, BSc
Solange Martins obtained her Bachelor’s degree in Biology and is currently taking her Master degree in Cellular and Molecular Biology, both at the University of Coimbra. During her bachelor’s she joined the Centre for Functional Ecology for a 6-month voluntary internship in the project “Diversity of fungal species in ancient parchments collections of the Archive of the University of Coimbra”, under the supervision of professor António Portugal, where she first gained experience in molecular biology techniques. During her Master thesis she joined the Neuronal Circuits and Behaviour group to study the impact of early-life stress on microglia and inhibitory neurons in the medial prefrontal cortex, under the supervision of Doctor Ana Luísa Cardoso. Throughout this period, she developed experience in numerous techniques including immunohistochemistry and confocal imaging, animal behaviour assays, cellular morphology analysis and 3D reconstruction, qRT-PCRs, as well as whole-cell patch clamp electrophysiology.
Bárbara Canijo, BSc
Bárbara Canijo obtained her Bachelor’s degree in Biochemistry at University of Porto and is currently taking her Master degree in Molecular and Translational Neuroscience at University of Coimbra. During her bachelor degree, she joined the Animal Genetics and Evolution group at CIIMAR, where she studied regulatory mechanisms of fast neurosecretion of acetylcholine in Torpedo marmorata (commonly known as the electric ray), learning some techniques of electrophysiology. Recently she joined the Neuronal Circuits and Behavior group at CNC due to her interest in understanding the molecular and circuits basis of behavior. Her master thesis will focus on understanding how prefrontal cortex / hippocampal projections are modulated in dominant and submissive behaviors in mice and how previous experience of winning (known as the winner effect) may increase the rank of an animal in the hierarchy. In this project, behavior assays, molecular analysis, chemogenetic tools and in vivo recordings will be used.
Maria Casquinha, BSc
Maria Casquinha obtained her Bachelor’s degree in Biomedical Pharmacy and is currently taking her Master’s degree in Cellular and Molecular Biology, both at the University of Coimbra. During her Master’s, she first joined the Neuronal Circuits and Behavior Group for a Laboratory Rotation course, where she began to acquire knowledge and expertise in the field of microglia, which is being further developed with her thesis work under the supervision of Doctor Joana Guedes. This project aims to dissect the role of IL-13 in modulating microglia-dependent cerebellar development, as well as the effects of triggered allergic airway inflammation in a house dust mites animal model on microglia and the cerebellar circuitry, by employing techniques such as flow cytometry, qRT-PCR, ELISA assays, immunohistochemistry, confocal microscopy, electrophysiology and behavioral analysis.
Mariana Martins, BSc
My path in science started at the University of Aveiro, where I obtained my Bachelor’s Degree in the Biomedical Sciences. During my BSc, I was able to develop my own research project entitled “Carbamates Induced Apoptosis in Carbamates Induced Apoptosis in Liver, Spleen and Kidney”, a collaboration between Centro Hospitalar do Baixo Vouga, IBiMed – Institute of Biomedicine – and CICECO – Aveiro Institute of Materials, with the guidance of Dr. Maria de Lourdes Pereira. I came to know of the Peça Lab in 2019, where I was accepted for a summer internship. In 2020, parallel to my first year in the Master’s Degree in Applied Pharmacology, I participated in the development of human-derived models to study dementia in Peça Lab. During this period, I acquired distinct skills in the field of stem cell reprogramming and culture. I am currently developing my master’s dissertation project, where I will focus on the differentiation of human dental stem cells to obtain robust models to study human neurodevelopmental disorders, such as autism, under the supervision of Catarina Seabra.
Carolina Lebre, BSc
Carolina Lebre obtained her Bachelor’s degree in Biology and is pursuing a Master´s degree in Cellular and Molecular Biology, both at the University of Coimbra. Through an internship at the “Neurotrophin Signaling and Synaptic (Dys)Function” Group at the Center for Neuroscience and Cell Biology, Carolina acquired knowledge in neurosciences and molecular biology techniques. Recently, she developed her own project in Science Communication with the guidance of Dr. Sara Amaral and Dr. Marisa Azul. Her Master’s thesis is currently being developed under the supervision of Dr. Ana Luísa Cardoso and is focused on dissecting the influence of allergy mediators on the developmental program of the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex. To perform this project, techniques such as qRT-PCR, ELISA assays, immunohistochemistry, confocal microscopy, electrophysiology and behavioral analysis will be employed.
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Neuronal Circuits & Behavior Laboratory
Center for Neuroscience and Cell Biology
Faculty of Medicine
University of Coimbra
Coimbra, 3004-504 – Portugal