Dr. Cornelius Gross is Group Leader, Senior Scientist, and Deputy Head of Unit at the Epigenetics & Neurobiology Unit of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) since 2003. His research aims to understand the neural circuit mechanisms controlling instinctive behaviors, with a special focus on fear and anxiety. Dr. Gross was raised in the United States and received undergraduate training in biophysics at the University of California, Berkeley and then pursued doctoral research at Y ale University studying transcriptional regulation by homeodomain factors with William McGinnis. Dr. Gross then joined the group of René Hen at Columbia University as a postdoctoral fellow where he discovered a developmental role for serotonin in determining life-long anxiety-related behavior and identified the serotonin receptor responsible for the therapeutic effects of antidepressants. In his early work at EMBL he showed how deficits in serotonin autoregulation can cause sudden infant death syndrome and how serotonin moderates the impact of maternal care on anxiety traits in adulthood. His laboratory is currently focused on characterizing hypothalamic and brainstem circuits that regulate social and predator fear and understanding the role of microglia in determining the wiring of behavioral circuits during development. In 2013 he was awarded an Advanced Grant from the European Research Council (ERC) to study social and predator fear circuits in the brain. Earlier in his career Dr. Gross served for two years as a science teacher at a public high school in New York City, where he gained an appreciation of the benefits and challenges of communicating science to a lay audience. He is married with three children and lives in Rome, Italy.


The expression of instinctive behaviors related to ingestion, reproduction, and defense depend on evolutionarily ancient behavioral circuits located in the hypothalamus.  It has been proposed that neural activity in these hypothalamic circuits encodes an internal motivational state that is essential for the expression of instinctive behavior and may be related to the emotion that accompanies instinctive urges in humans. However, the precise brain nuclei and circuit logic that support instinctive physiological and behavioral responses remain poorly defined. Moreover, although instinctive behaviors are innate, animals are to some degree able of control them to adapt their behaviors to their environment. Little is known about the plasticity mechanisms involved in such instinct control and how maladaptation of these behaviors, a major hallmark of psychiatric disorders, might arise. Current work in the lab combines molecular genetic, electrophysiological, and genetically encoded neural manipulation tools with behavioral methods to understand how the medial hypothalamus controls defensive responses to social and predator threats and how these can be remodeled by experience.