Integrative Neurobiology




Rodney Johnson

  • Degrees:
    B.S., 1986, Truman State University, Kirksville, Missouri
    M.S., 1989, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
    Ph.D., 1992, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
  • Current Position: Professor and Director, Division of Nutritional Sciences, Department of Animal Sciences, Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition, Neuroscience Program Campus Address: 4 Animal Sciences Laboratory Email: Phone: 217-333-2118

Ph.D. Students

Adrienne Antonson

  • Degrees: Bachelor of Science: Ithaca College, Ithaca NY
  • Current Position: MS Graduate Student in the Animal Sciences Department since August 2013.
  • Description of Research: My undergraduate research focused on aquatic arthropod behavior using both field- and lab-based studies investigating orientation to polarized light. Currently I am investigating the neuroimmune impacts of maternal immune activation on offspring using a piglet model. Specifically, I am assessing how microglia activation during the fetal and/or early postnatal period may contribute to long-term behavioral alterations and neuroinflammation. My research interests lie in uncovering the etiology of neurodevelopmental disorders such as schizophrenia and autism.
  • Career Goals: I plan to pursue a postdoctoral position, then conduct research in the field of Psychoneuroimmunology through either academia or industry.

Megan Caputo

  • Degrees:
    Temple University B.S.- Biology
    University of Delaware M.S.- Animal Science
  • Current Position: Ph.D. Candidate since May 2014, DVM Candidate since August 2013 through the Veterinary Medical Scholars Program.
  • Description of Research: At the University of Delaware I studied poultry welfare as it related to methods of controlling outbreaks of zoonotic disease. At Temple University School of Medicine I spent a year researching therapeutic measures to attenuate the effects of traumatic brain injury. Currently, I am studying the effects of inflammation and malnutrition on brain development, and more specifically, nutritional interventions aimed at optimizing neural development in small for gestational age individuals.
  • Career Goals: I would like to pursue a career as a research scientist in the nutrition industry.

Brian Leyshon

  • Degrees: B.S. – Biological Sciences, University of Southern California
  • Current Position: Ph.D. student in the Division of Nutritional Sciences.
  • Description of Research: While at the University of Southern California, I worked with the MPTP mouse model of Parkinson’s disease to study the effects of exercise on synaptic plasticity in the context of neurodegeneration. At this time, I am studying how postnatal iron deficiency affects white matter development in the piglet model utilizing magnetic resonance imaging and fluorescent immunohistochemistry. Concurrently, I am also utilizing MRI to examine how maternal infection affects brain structure in the neonatal piglet. I am particularly interested in the effects of neuroinflammation and the potential for its attenuation via nutritional bioactives.
  • Career Goals: I hope to become a research scientist in industry.


Bindu Balakrishnan

  • Degrees: PhD, NIMHANS, Bangalore, India
  • Current Position: Postdoc Research Associate from June 2013 to August 2015.
  • Description of Research: I am interested in studying the mechanism of fetal brain injury following maternal infection/inflammation. Currently, my research focuses on fetal and neonatal brain development following maternal porcine respiratory and reproductive syndrome (PRRS) viral infection in a pig model. I look into changes in gene expression and perform immunohistochemical analysis to look at neuronal and glial changes in various regions of the piglet brain.
  • Career Goals: To become a scientist in academia or industry.

Michael D. Burton

  • Degrees:
    University of Illinois B.S.
    University of Illinois PhD
  • Current Position: Research Assistant (2004-2007); Graduate Student (2007-2012)
  • Description of Research: I worked as an undergraduate with Dr. Johnson for 2 years on projects revolving around aging and cognitive deficits. Then I received my PhD last August with Dr. Johnson through examining the role of IL-6 signaling on aging and behavioral deficits.
  • Career Goals: I aim to become a professor at a research institution. Currently, I work at UTSouthwestern Medical Center looking at the role of vagal TLR-4 signaling in the control of energy homeostasis and immune-to-Brain function.

Matt Conrad

  • Degrees:
    BS: University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill
    PhD: University of Illinois- Urbana-Champaign
  • Current Position: Matt was a member of the lab from Summer 2009 - Spring 2014. He just finished his PhD from the Neuroscience Program and is currently finishing medical school at Illinois.
  • Description of Research: While at the University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill, I spent three years researching the molecular mechanisms behind chronic pain conditions including temporomandibular joint disorder (TMJ) and fibromyalgia. I split my time between clinical research and animal studies. At UIUC I researched the effects of an early life infection on brain and cognitive development. I used a piglet model with the porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome virus to see how early life infection affects brain growth, neurogenesis, learning and memory, and dendritic arborization. I have also helped developed MRI neuroimaging methods for the piglet including structural voxel based morphometry, diffusion tensor imaging, and magnetic resonance spectroscopy.
  • Career Goals: My career goal is to become a physician scientist at an academic hospital. I would like to lead a research lab and have part time clinical duties.

Monica R.P. Elmore

  • Degrees:
    Michigan State University B.S. - Animal behavior and Animal Welfare
    Purdue University PhD - Animal Behavior, Cognition, Welfare
    University of Illinois Postdoctoral Fellow
    University of California, Irvine Postdoctoral Fellow
  • Current Position: Former Postdoctoral Fellow from January 2011 to October 2012
  • Description of Research: At Purdue University, I studied the motivation of sows for environmental enrichment and the impact of enrichment on behavior, health, and welfare. At the University of Illinois as a postdoctoral fellow, I studied the impact of early life infection (PRRSV) or early life nutrition (iron) on cognition and neuroinflammation in neonatal piglets. In addition, developed and validated a visuo-spatial hippocampal dependent task for assessing cognitive function in pigs. Currently, at the University of California, Irvine I am studying the role of microglia in cognition and neuroinflammation, using mice as a model for neurodegenerative disease.
  • Career Goals: I want to become a research scientist in academia.

Trisha Gibbons

  • Degrees:
    University of Nevada, Reno B.S. - Nutritional Sciences
    University of Nevada, Reno B.A. - Psychology
    University of Nevada, Reno Minor - Spanish
    University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign M.S. - Division of Nutritional Sciences
  • Thesis Title: Enhancing learning and memory in the aged: Interactions between dietary supplementation and exercise.
  • Current Position: Former Graduate Student from Summer 2012 - Spring 2014
  • Description of Research: My research interest involved how exercise and dietary supplementation can enhance learning and memory in an aged model. I am particularly interested in how exercise and nutrition can reduce risk of chronic disease and improve over all well-being, cognition, and health status in clinical populations. I am currently, working as an exercise technician in Dr. Edward McAuley's Exercise Psychology Laboratory in the Department of Kinesiology and Community Health, where the primary outcomes of interest are physical activity and fitness; psychological, social, and cognitive health; physical function; and quality of life across the lifespan.
  • Career Goals: I hope to be involved in health care and working with non-profit organizations around the world after I am finished with my graduate research here at the University of Illinois.

Peng Ji

  • Degrees:
    B.S., Animal Science, Shenyang Agricultural University
    M.S., Animal Science and Feed Technology, China Agricultural University
    Ph.D., Animal Science, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign
    Postdoc, William H. Miner Agricultural Research Institute
  • Current Position: Postdoctoral fellow since Fall 2013.
  • Description of Research: In Dr. Johnson’s lab, the neonatal piglet has been well characterized as a translational model for study of brain development of human infants. Previous studies of the lab showed that early life peripheral infection (porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome virus) triggered CNS inflammation and compromised cognitive function of preweaning piglets. My research interest focuses on understanding the underlying mechanism that alters polarization and plasticity of microglia and their association with progression and resolution of CNS inflammation and corresponding behavioral and cognitive phenotypes. Consequently, I would like to explore the opportunity to optimize therapeutic interventions.
  • Career Goals: I would like to become a research scientist in academia.

Marcus Lawson

Stephanie Matt

  • Degrees: University of Delaware B.S.-Neuroscience and Psychology with a Cognitive Science Minor
  • Current Position: PhD graduate student in the Neuroscience Program from August 2013 to March 2018.
  • Description of Research: At the University of Illinois, I investigated how aging results in neuroinflammation and deterioration of brain health, specifically through understanding epigenetic programming of microglia in mice. I developed techniques to assess DNA methylation of pro-inflammatory genes. Currently, I am in a post-doctoral position at Drexel investigating dopamine-mediated changes in HIV infection in macrophages and specifically macrophage immune function.
  • Career Goals: After my post-doctoral position I would like pursue a career in academia to continue neuroimmunology research.

Emily Radlowski

  • Degrees:
    B.S 2007- Dietetics and Human Nutrition/Chemistry Minor- University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
    Ph.D 2012- Nutritional Sciences- University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Registration in Dietetics (RD)- 2012
  • Current Position: Post-Doctoral Research Associate from July 2012 to July 2015. Now Director of Scientific Affairs at the National Dairy Council.
  • Description of Research: My current research in the Johnson lab utilizes a piglet model to investigate the effects of birth weight on neurocognitive development and development of the gut-brain-axis. In this lab I helped to create and validate a piglet model for the small-for-gestational-age infant. These infants are born to term, but are low birth weight and have the propensity for deficits in neurocognition. This model will be utilized for future work using nutritional interventions. My work on this project ties in well with my previous dissertation work investigating the effect of early nutrition on gut and immune development also utilizing a piglet model. I am very interested in how nutrition can be used to modulate the brain, whether by direct effect or through the gut-brain-axis. In addition to that, I am currently working on a project investigating how exposure to an inflammatory environment in-utero effects cognitive development in the neonate after parturition.
  • Career Goals: I would like to become a research scientist in academia.

Brigitte Townsend

  • Degrees:
    Liberty University B.S.
    University of Georgia M.S. - Natural Products Chemistry
    University of Illinois Ph.D. - Nutritional Sciences
  • Current Position: Brigitte worked in our lab from 2011-2015. She is now an Assistant Professor at Liberty University.
  • Description of Research: An interest in nutritional immunology drew me to UIUC to begin my PhD work in the Division of Nutritional Sciences. My research focuses on the effects of the broccoli-derived bioactive sulforaphane (SFN) on inflammatory markers and sickness behavior. SFN activates the transcriptional regulator Nrf2, which promotes expression of genes involved in cellular detoxification. I am using SFN to investigate the Nrf2 pathway as a potential therapeutic target to reduce oxidative stress that is associated with acute and chronic inflammation in an aged mouse model.
  • Career Goals: I plan to pursue a career in academia, teaching nutrition/biology courses and advising undergraduates.

Jennifer Williams

  • Degrees: University of Illinois B.S. - Integrative Biology/Chemistry Minor
  • Current Position: M.S. graduate student in the Division of Nutritional Sciences since August 2015.
  • Description of Research: As an undergraduate, I was involved in research regarding the effects of the bioactive sulforaphane on neuroinflammation and sickness behavior in mice. Currently, I am studying the effects of human milk oligosaccharides on the cognitive development of intrauterine growth restricted infants using a neonatal piglet model.
  • Career Goals: I would like to pursue my MD and become a physician.

Louisa Xue

  • Degrees: B.S. in Economics, University of Pennsylvania
  • Current Position: Research Assistant (Division of Nutritional Sciences) since September 2015
  • Description of Research: Development of the gut in neonatal, IUGR piglets with HMO supplementation
  • Career Goals: Nutrition Analytics


Erica LeMay

  • Degrees: University of Illinois B.S. – Animal Sciences (in progress)
  • Current Position: Research Assistant since Spring 2016
  • Description of Research: I provide care to the animals, piglets and mice, that we use during our research trials. I also help out around the lab when needed.
  • Career Goals: I hope to have enough time to double major in Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences and eventually end up doing something with wildlife or conservation.