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Eric J. Vallender, PhD

Eric Vallender 2021 300x400

Associate Professor
Department of Psychiatry and Human Behavior
Office: TR409
(601) 984-5893


  • BS, University of Illinois – Urbana/Champaign, 2000, Biochemistry (with High Distinction)
  • BA, University of Illinois – Urbana/Champaign, 2000, Anthropology
  • PhD, University of Chicago, 2006, Genetics
  • Postdoctoral Fellow, Harvard Medical School, New England Primate Research Center, 2006-2009, Neuroscience

Research interests

  • Comparative genomics of psychiatric disease
  • Molecular evolution of the brain
  • Substance abuse functional genetics

Current research

Comparative genomics of neuropsychiatric disease

  • As with any complex human disease, understanding the genomic underpinnings associated with psychiatric disease has been difficult. Animal models can be especially useful when the biology and molecular etiology is strongly conserved and extreme environmental heterogeneity among human users is particularly confounding. Through this work we have identified genetic variation which, while not sharing an evolutionary origin, functionally act in parallel manners in non-human primates and humans. We have also explored conservation and divergence in genes associated with psychiatric disorders. Most recently we have begun exploring brain transcriptomics across species and phenotypes.

Evolution of primate brain and behavior

  • Understanding the evolution of the human brain and associated behavior is critical for illuminating the origins of neuropsychiatric diseases, human behavior, and characteristics which make us uniquely human. Using comparative genetic and genomic techniques it is possible to identify and characterize the important genetic differences between species. In doing so we hope to understand the genetic changes that have led to the emergence of the human brain and human-specific behaviors and to better interpret human pathologies in this context. Our ongoing studies have identified correlations between evolutionary changes associated with the emergence of the human brain and neurodevelopmental disorders including schizophrenia and autism. We are pursuing this for identifying causes and improving understandings of these diseases.

Substance use disorder functional genetics

  • In the post-genomic era we are quickly being inundated with association studies tying genetic polymorphisms with measures of disease. Our work focuses on a core challenge; clarifying the mechanisms by which genotype leads to a diseased phenotype. Currently, we focus on G-protein coupled receptors, proteins associated with a number of diseases and major drug targets. We have characterized the effects of genetic variation on the ligand binding and intracellular signaling of the mu-opioid receptor. We have further established the association between this genetic variation and alcohol abuse, cortisol levels, and other behavioral phenotypes. Finally, we have demonstrated how this variation mediates the efficacy of naltrexone, a drug used in the treatment of alcoholism and other addictions and less commonly for other psychiatric disorders.

Improving animal models

  • The development of improved animal models and usage of animals in biomedicine can be facilitated by comparative information on genotype/phenotype associations of the animal model and the human disease. Animal models are primarily useful if they replicate human disease and response. If the phenotype of the animal model is similar to the human phenotype, but the genetic underpinnings diverge, then the research will be of reduced translational value. Using comparative genetics, we aim to highlight animal models likely to have translational validity and to strengthen and improve the models, improving the power of animal studies and maximizing their utility. Our studies have identified naturally-occurring variation which both models disease phenotypes of interest and which may have confounding effects on animal research. These have improved animal allocation and directly contributed to improved study design.

Current funding

  • NIH/OD P51 OD011104
    Tulane National Primate Research Center
    PI: L. Lee Hamm; Core Scientist: Eric J. Vallender
    Grant period: 7/15/2018-4/30/2023
  • NIH/OD R24 OD021324
    Genomic sequencing to establish a macaque genotype and phenotype research resource
    PI: Betsy Ferguson; Site-PI: Eric J. Vallender
    Grant period: 7/1/2020-6/30/2024
  • NIH/OD U42 OD010568
    Maintenance of an SPF Macaque Breeding Colony for AIDS Research
    PI: Skip Bohm; Core Scientist: Eric J. Vallender
    Grant period: 2/21/2021-1/31/2025
  • Mayo Clinic Research Agreement
    Development of a Bipolar Biobank at UMMC
    PI: Eric J. Vallender
    Grant period: 3/1/2021-2/28/2023
  • NIH/OD U42 OD024282
    Tulane National Primate Research Center, AIDS SPF Breeding Colony Maintenance
    PI: Skip Bohm; Core Scientist: Eric J. Vallender
    Grant period: 7/1/2021-6/30/2025
  • NIH/OD R21 OD030072
    Host genetic variation effects on the microbiome in rhesus macaques
    PI: Eric J. Vallender
    Grant period: 7/15/2021-6/30/2023

Select publications

  • Zhang X, Hutchins SD, Blough BE, Vallender EJ. In vitro effects of ligand bias on primate mu opioid receptor downstream signaling. Int J Mol Sci. 2020 Jun 3;21(11):E3999.
  • Zhang X, Yasuda K, Gilmore RA, Westmoreland SV, Platt DM, Miller GM, Vallender EJ. Alcohol-induced changes in the gut microbiome and metabolome of rhesus macaques. Psychopharmacology (Berl). 2019 May;236(5):1531-1544.
  • Vallender EJ, Genetics of human brain evolution. Prog Brain Res. 2019;250:3-39.
  • Vallender EJ. Molecular evolution and phenotypic change. 2017. In: Kaas, J (ed.), Evolution of Nervous Systems 2e. vol. 4, pp. 101–119. Oxford: Elsevier.
  • Sweeney CG, Rando JM, Panas HN, Miller GM, Platt DM, Vallender EJ. Convergent balancing selection on the mu-opioid receptor in primates. Mol. Biol. Evol. 2017 Jul 1;34(7):1629-1643.
  • Vallender EJ, Goswami DB, Shinday NM, Westmoreland SV, Yao W-D, Rowlett JK. Transcriptomic profiling of the ventral tegmental area and nucleus accumbens in rhesus macaques following long-term cocaine self-administration. Drug Alcohol Depend. 2017 Jun 1;175:9-23.
  • Ogawa LM, Vallender EJ. Evolutionary Conservation in Genes Underlying Human Psychiatric Disorders. Front Hum Neurosci 2014; 8:283.
Complete list of published work in MyBibliography