Any man could,

if he were so inclined,

be the sculptor of his own brain.

-Santiago Ramón y Cajal


Overview of Research in the Kopec Lab

When asked to think of brain development, one often pictures babies developing in utero, learning to speak, or triumphantly climbing the stairs of the school bus in their "first day of school" outfit. These are all momentous developmental steps in brain and psychological development. But brain development actually continues well past these stages, even into young adulthood. Decreases in grey matter density is a normal developmental process that continues in some brain regions well into ones twenties (right; image from Gogtay et al. 2004). 

brain devo pic.png

Brain regions associated with decision making and reward processing develop during adolescence. these regions are particularly vulnerable during this time and can be altered by stressors common to the human adolescent experience, such as drug use or social stress.


Microglia, the brain's immune cells, regulate both brain development and its response to experience. In development, microglia eliminate connections between neurons, known as synaptic pruning, which we think is related to decreases in grey matter (above). And, as immune cells, microglia's primary role is surveillance (left; acquired by Dr. Richa Hanamsagar). This allows microglia to rapidly respond to change, including changes in psychological state, like emotions, or bodily state, like the presence of addictive substances.

Dr. Kopec's previous work demonstrated that during adolescent development, microglia eliminate (or prune) dopamine receptors in reward regions in male, but not female rats. This immune process was responsible for normal developmental changes in social behavior over the course of adolescence.

By extension, any stimulus or experience that can activate dopamine or immune signaling has the potential to interact with adolescent brain development and re-route it in ways that will lastingly change brain wiring and behavior.


Moreover, because dopaminergic brain development in adolescence is regulated in sex-specific ways, experience is likely to be interpreted by the brain in a sex-specific manner and result in sex-specific outcomes. Interestingly, a variety of neuropsychiatric disorders associated with dopaminergic and/or immune signaling that 'emerge' during, or are strongly influenced by, the adolescent developmental period have sex-biased presentations, for instance ADHD in males and depression in females (right; image from McCarthy 2016). 

sex diffs png.png

What stimuli or experiences affect dopamine and/or immune signaling?

Answer: All of the things.

The Kopec lab seeks to understand how the adolescent brain develops in sex-specific ways, and how adolescent experience interacts with this development to lastingly alter brain circuits and behavior. We are particularly interested in how microglia and immune signaling might be at the crossroads between development and experience, serving to re-route neural development and communication down one path or another. 

sex specific treatment cartoon.jpg

After all, if the brain develops in sex specific-ways, responds to experience in sex-specific ways, and neurological disorders emerge in sex-specific ways, then we will likely require sex-specific pharmacological and behavioral treatments to combat pathological states (left; from AAPS).


The Kopec Lab Mission


The Kopec lab aims to use basic science studying the intersection between experience and brain development, in particular neuro-immune development, during adolescence to advance our understanding and treatment of sex-specific neurological disorders. 

We will achieve this by producing high quality research that is reproducible, creative, and thorough. This requires:

1) valuing literature reviews and discussing new research in journal clubs, 

2) planning, planning again, and then planning a third time before performing experiments,

3) optimizing experiments to attain the most interpretable data possible,

4) leveraging our wonderful environment at Albany Medical Center by engaging with clinical expertise to ensure the questions we are asking and models we are developing are translationally relevant, and

5) a sincere and unwavering commitment to training and developing exceptional scientists.


We all screw up. It's inevitable. Failure is part and parcel of academia. What really matters is what happens next.

The Kopec lab values mentorship and supported development in both the personal and professional arenas. Each lab member will have the opportunity to regularly evaluate his/her scholarly and career goals, and how to negotiate those needs with personal needs. Dr. Kopec will be the first to admit she hasn't always done this right, but the culture she wants to instill is one in which (1) you screw up (again, as we all do), (2) we, as a team, work together to figure out what happened and how to move forward, (3) then you do so.

On a related note, academia will not be the last stop for everyone's career. The Kopec lab fully supports other ways of using your numerous skills, and Dr. Kopec is dedicated to helping you find what brings the absolute best out of your talents and makes you happy.


The Kopec lab believes communication is key for scientists. To develop communication skills, ample opportunities will be provided to practice writing and speaking aimed at different audiences. A talk given to a room full of scientists will look a lot different from a talk given to a room full of community members. A grant application will look a lot different from a manuscript for publication. A well-rounded communication toolkit is essential and the Kopec lab will help you build it.

Furthermore, interpersonal communication is key for team success and workplace satisfaction. Dr. Kopec will prioritize open communication and constructive discussions, and she expects other lab colleagues to do so as well. 

Outreach and education

The Kopec lab is excited to integrate into and contribute to the Albany community! All outreach and educational endeavors will be fully encouraged, and ideally a team effort. We look forward to expanding this section as our lab grows in Albany. Previous examples of Dr. Kopec's outreach effort include volunteering for the BioBus, mentoring through the New York Academy of Sciences, and hosting the Science Olympiad winners for a lecture during 2017's Society for Neuroscience meeting.


Principal Investigator

Dr. Ashley M. Kopec

I grew up in Wisconsin and received my Bachelor's degree in Psychology from the liberal arts institution, Carroll University. My interest in research began with a summer research program sponsored by Amgen at UC San Francisco, and eventually motivated me to earn my PhD from NYU's Center for Neural Science under the mentorship of Dr. Thomas Carew. My NRSA F31-supported thesis focused on the role of different growth factors simultaneously engaged during long-term memory formation.  I completed my postdoctoral work with Dr. Staci Bilbo at Duke University and Harvard Medical School/Mass General Hospital, where my NRSA F32-supported project focused on the neuro-immune mechanisms of adolescent brain and behavioral development. I am now continuing my academic journey as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Neuroscience and Experimental Therapeutics at Albany Medical College, starting in Nov. 2018. In addition to research, I love teaching, reading, watching sports, and spending time with my husband, Dan, and two fur babies, Milo and Brave Champion (yes, you read that right). Go Pack Go!

Research Staff


← This could be you! The Kopec lab is recruiting a research technician/lab manager.

A position is available in the Kopec lab for a research technician/lab manager beginning in Dec. 2018 (start date is flexible). We are looking for an enthusiastic and dedicated scientist eager to assist with multiple research projects. S/He must also be a beacon of organizational light in the lab and help to maintain an efficient, safe, and pleasant working environment. All applicants must have a Bachelor's degree (Master's preferred) and be comfortable with and respect rodents as a research model. While previous experience with rodent behavior and stereotaxic surgery are a plus, it is not required. Dr. Kopec aims to offer personalized support, mentorship, and career develoment to each of her staff, and you should expect no less (see Mission). Please email your letter of intent and CV/resume to Dr. Kopec at

Postdoctoral Fellows


← This could be you! The Kopec lab is recruiting a postdoctoral fellow.

A three-year position is available in the Kopec lab for a postdoctoral fellow beginning in Dec. 2018 (start date is flexible). We are looking for a passionate and team-oriented scientist interested in adolescent development, immune signaling, addiction, neuropsychiatric disorders, sex differences, and anything in between! S/He is expected to be thoughtful, thorough, and rigorous in scientific pursuits and contribute to a laboratory culture of mentorship, support, and creativity. All applicants must have a PhD, ideally (but not exclusively) with previous experience in molecular techniques and rodent models. Candidates should come ready to read, plan experiments, and write - new data, papers, grants; let's hit the ground running! There are pluses and minuses to joining a new lab that you will need to weigh carefully. What a new lab can offer is a higher level or personal and professional attention, more opportunities to work side by side with the PI on verbal and written science communication, and the excitement of helping to build something from the ground up. Dr. Kopec aims to offer personalized support, mentorship, and career development to each of her staff, and you should expect no less (see Mission). Please email your letter of intent and CV/resume to Dr. Kopec at

Graduate Students


← This could be you! The Kopec lab is recruiting Graduate students.

The Kopec lab is accepting students for Fall 2019. We are looking for energetic and dedicated scientists eager to learn and develop. Being a graduate student is very difficult, but very rewarding if you feel happy and comfortable in your lab setting and with your colleagues. Dr. Kopec aims to offer personalized support, mentorship, and career development to each of her staff, and you should expect no less (see Mission). Please email Dr. Kopec if you are interested in joining her lab at, and for application/curriculum information check out the Albany Medical College Department of Neuroscience and Experimental Therapeutics website here.

Undergraduate Students


← This could be you! The Kopec lab is recruiting Undergraduate student researchers.

The Kopec lab is accepting undergraduate students as early as Summer 2019. We are looking for energetic and dedicated scientists eager to help us reach our research goals. All applicants must be comfortable with and respect rodents as a research model. Dr. Kopec aims to offer personalized support, mentorship, and career development to each of her staff, and you should expect no less (see Mission). Please email Dr. Kopec if you are interested in joining her lab at



Dr. Kopec's complete works on Pubmed can be found here. Below you will find each individual publication. For PDFs or information regarding on-going projects, please feel free to contact us!

Kopec AM, Smith CJ, Ayre NR, Sweat SC, Bilbo SD. (2018). Microglial dopamine receptor elimination defines sex-specific nucleus accumbens development and social behavior in adolescent rats. Nature Communications, 9(1): 3769.

*This study received media attention (here), was selected by Nat Comms editors for a press release (here) and feature (here), was recommended twice by F1000 (below), and got a shoutout from the director of the NIH (here)!*

Access the recommendation on F1000Prime

Kopec AM, Smith CJ, Ayre NR, Sweat SC, Bilbo SD. (Online Pre-print). Microglial elimination of dopamine D1 receptors defines sex-specific changes in nucleus accumbens development and social play behavior during adolescence. bioRxiv doi:

Kopec AM, Fiorentino MR, Bilbo SD. (2018). Gut-immune-brain dysfunction in Autism: Importance of sex. Brain Research, S0006-8993(18): 30017-19.

Lacagnina MJ, Kopec AM, Cox SS, Hanamsagar R, Wells C, Slade S, Grace PM, Watkins LR, Levin ED, Bilbo SD. (2017). Opioid Self-Administration is Attenuated by Early-Life Experience and Gene Therapy for Anti-Inflammatory IL-10 in the Nucleus Accumbens of Male Rats. Neuropsychopharmacology, 42(11): 2128-40.

Kopec AM, Rivera PD, Lacagnina MJ, Hanamsagar R, Bilbo SD. (2017). Optimized solubilization of TRIzol-precipitated protein permits Western blotting analysis to maximize data available from brain tissue. Journal of Neuroscience Methods, 280: 64-76.

Mirisis AA*, Alexandrescu A*, Carew TJ, Kopec AM. (2016). The contribution of spatial and temporal networks in the induction of long-term memory and its underlying synaptic plasticity. Aims Neuroscience, 3(3): 356-84. 

Stough S*, Kopec AM*, Carew TJ. (2015). Synaptic generation of an intracellular retrograde signal requires activation of the tyrosine kinase and mitogen-activated protein kinase signaling cascades in Aplysia. Neurobiology of Learning and Memory, 125: 47-54. *indicates co-first authorship

Kopec AM, Philips GT, Carew TJ. (2015). Distinct growth factor families are recruited in unique spatiotemporal domains during long-term memory formation in Aplysia californica. Neuron, 86(5): 1228-39. 

Fischbach S*, Kopec AM*, Carew TJ (2014). Activity-dependent inhibitory gating in molecular signaling cascades induces a novel form of intermediate-term synaptic facilitation in Aplysia californica. Learning and Memory, 21(4): 199-204. *indicates co-first authorship

 Pu L, Kopec AM, Boyle HD, Carew TJ (2014). A novel cysteine-rich neurotrophic factor in Aplysia facilitates neuronal growth, MAPK activation, and long-term synaptic facilitation in identified sensory neurons. Learning and Memory, 21(4): 215-222.

Kopec AM & Carew TJ (2013). Growth factor signaling and memory formation: Temporal and spatial integration of a molecular network. Learning & Memory, 20(10): 531-539.

Philips GT, Kopec AM, Carew TJ (2013). Pattern and predictability in memory formation: From molecular mechanisms to clinical relevance. Neurobiology of Learning and Memory, 105: 117-124.

Philips GT, Ye X, Kopec AM, Carew TJ (2013). MAPK establishes a molecular context that defines effective training patterns for long-term memory formation. The Journal of Neuroscience, 33(17): 7565-73.

Contact the Kopec Lab

The Kopec lab would love to hear from you! Whether you'd like to join the lab, chat about research, request a PDF of a publication, or offer a general comment or question, we welcome your input. You can reach us at:


The Kopec lab doors open in Nov. 2018 at Albany Medical College in New York. Albany is a fun, affordable city with lots to do and see! From hiking and kayaking to dining and dancing, there is something for everyone in Albany. As the geographical oddity it is, Albany is also only a few hours from New York City, Boston, and Montreal for when you get a craving for big-city flavors.