Haijiang Cai, Ph.D.

Associate Professor

Haijiang Cai, Ph.D.

B.S. USTC, 2001; Ph.D. USC, 2007; Postdoc, Caltech, 2008-2015.

We are looking for motivated Postdoc and Graduate Students to join the lab. If you are interested, please contact Dr. Cai haijiangcai@arizona.edu


We are studying the neural circuits of animal behaviors in health and disease, with a focus on understanding how the neural circuits regulate feeding and emotional behaviors such as fear, anxiety, and depression.

We use multidisciplinary approaches include transgenic mice, optogenetics, chemogenetics, in vivo calcium imaging, behavioral assays, brain slice electrophysiology, virus and non-virus based neuronal tracing, stereotaxic injection and immunohistology, 

1. Interactions of the feeding and emotion neural circuits. One fascinating and important phenomenon (or problem) in neuroscience is that many neuronal diseases are co-morbid. For example, most eating disorder patients also have emotional disorders such as depression and anxiety. However, little is known about the neurobiology underlying eating disorders, even less is known about its relationship to emotional disorders. Recently, we have identified a specific population of neurons in the central extended amygdala (CEA), a region known for emotion control, that play important roles in regulating feeding behaviors. This result has opened a unique door to understanding the interactions of feeding and emotion at the circuits level.

2. Central neural circuits of gut-brain communication.  Satiety signals such as CCK are released in the gastrointestinal tract (GI tract) during a meal. They activate the vagus nerves to reach the central brain nucleus tractus solitarius (NTS), and then to the parabrachial nucleus (PBN). PBN sends information further to CEA and other nucleus to stop feeding. Other anorexigenic signals including visceral malaise (mimiced by intraperitoneal injection of LiCl) and bitter tastant, are also using similar pathways to reach the central brain to mediate various behavioral responses. Interestingly, CEA neurons represent the first inhibitory relay in this pathway. Therefore, functional circuits mapping using c-Fos cannot go further downstream of this pathway. The genetic identification of CEA neurons provided us a fascinating tool to investigate the gut-brain communication in a specific way and to determine the downstream brain regions after CEA.

3. Feeding and emotion circuits in energy balance, metabolism, and obesity.  More and more evidences suggest that the neural circuits regulate emotion and acute feeding behaviors also contribute to the long term homeostasis of energy balance, metabolism, and body weight. Do CEA neural circuits also regulate obesity, a more and more serious global health problem in modern society? The neurons in the hypothalamic nuclei, including lateral hypothalamus, arcuate nucleus, and paraventricular hypothalamic nucleus, have been well demonstrated to be involved in acute feeding regulation and long term energy homeostasis. What is the relationship of the CEA feeding circuits to the circuits in the hypothalamic nuclei?

SELECTED PUBLICATIONS (click here for the complete list)

  1. Zhang-Molina C, Schmit MB, Cai H. Neural Circuit Mechanism Underlying the Feeding Controlled by Insula-Central Amygdala Pathway. iScience. 2020 Apr 5;23(4):101033. doi: 10.1016/j.isci.2020.101033. [Epub ahead of print] PubMed PMID: 32311583; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC7168768.
  2. Wang Y, Kim J, Schmit MB, Cho TS, Fang C, Cai HA bed nucleus of stria terminalis microcircuit regulating inflammation-associated modulation of feeding. Nat Commun. 2019 Jun 24;10(1):2769. doi: 10.1038/s41467-019-10715-x. PubMed PMID: 31235690.
    News & MediaUA News | Daily Wildcat | Brain & Behavior Research Foundation News | KGUN 9 NEWS | ABC15 News | Arizona Publica Media (AZPM) | Science Daily | EurekAlert | Neuroscience News | Daily Mail | Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology News
  3. Cai H, Haubensak W, Anthony TE, Anderson DJ. Central amygdala PKC-δ(+) neurons mediate the influence of multiple anorexigenic signals. Nat Neurosci. 2014 Sep;17(9):1240-8. doi: 10.1038/nn.3767. Epub 2014 Jul 27. PubMed PMID: 25064852; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC4146747.
    News & Media: New York Times: A mouse switch turns off appetite | BBC: Brain cells can suppress appetite, study in mice shows
  4. Haubensak W, Kunwar PS*, Cai H*, Ciocchi S*, Wall NR, Ponnusamy R, Biag J, Dong HW, Deisseroth K, Callaway EM, Fanselow MS, Lüthi A, Anderson DJ. Genetic dissection of an amygdala microcircuit that gates conditioned fear. Nature. 2010 Nov 11;468(7321):270-6. doi: 10.1038/nature09553. PubMed PMID: 21068836; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC3597095.  *equal contribution
  5. Cai H, Reim K, Varoqueaux F, Tapechum S, Hill K, Sørensen JB, Brose N, Chow RH. Complexin II plays a positive role in Ca2+-triggered exocytosis by facilitating vesicle priming. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2008 Dec 9;105(49):19538-43. doi: 10.1073/pnas.0810232105. Epub 2008 Nov 25. PubMed PMID: 19033464; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC2614796.


  • NROS 418 (Spring): Fundamental Principles in Systems Neuroscience
  • NRSC 560 (Spring): Systems Neuroscience. Neuroscience GIDP, Course Coordinator: Andrew Fuglevand.


  • Matthew Schmit, PhD Student, Neuroscience GIDP
  • Wesley Schnapp, PhD Student, Neuroscience GIDP
  • Masa Miscevic, Rotation Student, Physiological Sciences GIDP
  • Marina Rodriguez Sanchez, Postdoc
  • Anna Fang, Research Specialist
  • Mauricio Serna, Research Technician
  • Hannah Vu, Undergraduate Student
  • Ananya Nigam, Undergraduate Student
  • Veena Raghuraman, Undergraduate Student

Former members

  • Gizem Ozturk, Undergraduate Student
  • Mayra Rivera, Undergraduate Student, Currently Master Student at the University of Arizona
  • Kevin Vo, Undergraduate Student, Currently Medical student at the University of Arizona Medical School, Phoenix
  • Tahia Hanseen, Undergraduate Student, Currently Research Technician at the University of Arizona
  • Tiffany Cho, Undergraduate Student, Currently Research Technician at the University of Arizona
  • Ross Mansouri-Rad, Research Technician, Currently Graduate Student at the University of Chicago
  • JungMin Kim, Research Technician, Currently Graduate Student at the University of Colorado Denver Anschutz Medical Campus
  • Yong Wang, Ph.D. Postdoctoral fellow, Currently Associate Professor at the Xi'an Jiaotong University, China
  • Makenna Anderson, University High School Student, Currently student at the University of Arizona

 Cai lab, 2018