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Elizabeth McCone Byrnes

Elizabeth McCone Byrnes
Professor and Associate Chair
Section Head Neuroscience and Reproductive Biology

Campus Phone:



  • BA - University of Massachusetts at Boston - 1991
  • PhD - The Ohio State University - 1995
  1. Wlodarczyk-Li, S.A., Vassoler, F.M., Byrnes, E.M., Schonhoff, C.M. 2020. Oxycodone Decreases Dendritic Complexity in Female but not Male Rat Striatal Neurons In Vitro. Neuroscience Letters.
  2. Vassoler, F.M., Toorie, A.M., Teceno, D.N., Walia, P., Moore, D.J., Patton, T.D., Byrnes, E.M. 2020. Paternal morphine exposure induces bidirectional effects on cocaine versus opioid self-administration. Neuropharmacology.
  3. Lambert, K.G., Byrnes, E.M. 2019. Challenges to the parental brain: Neuroethological and translational considerations. Frontiers in Neuroendocrinology.
  4. Vassoler, F.M., Toorie, A.M., Byrnes, E.M. 2019. Increased cocaine reward in offspring of females exposed to morphine during adolescence. Psychopharmacology.
  5. Vassoler, F.M., Toorie, A.M., Byrnes, E.M. 2019. Multi-, Inter-, and Transgenerational Effects of Drugs of Abuse on Behavior. Current Topics in Behavioral Neurosciences.
  6. Toorie, A.M., Vassoler, F.M., Qu, F., Schonhoff, C.M., Bradburn, S., Murgatroyd, C.A., Slonim, D.K., Byrnes, E.M. 2019. A history of opioid exposure in females increases the risk of metabolic disorders in their future male offspring. Addiction Biology.
  7. Byrnes, E.M., Vassoler, F.M. 2018. Modeling prenatal opioid exposure in animals: Current findings and future directions. Frontiers in Neuroendocrinology.
  8. Vassoler, F.M., Oranges, M.L., Toorie, A.M., Byrnes, E.M. 2018. Oxycodone self-administration during pregnancy disrupts the maternal-infant dyad and decreases midbrain OPRM1 expression during early postnatal development in rats. Pharmacology Biochemistry and Behavior.
  9. Vassoler, F.M., Toorie, A.M., Byrnes, E.M. 2018. Transgenerational blunting of morphine-induced corticosterone secretion is associated with dysregulated gene expression in male offspring. Brain Research.
  10. Vassoler, F.M., Oliver, D.J., Wyse, C., Blau, A., Shtutman, M., Turner, J.R., Byrnes, E.M. 2017. Transgenerational attenuation of opioid self-administration as a consequence of adolescent morphine exposure. Neuropharmacology.
  11. Bodi, C.M., Vassoler, F.M., Byrnes, E.M. 2016. Adolescent experience affects postnatal ultrasonic vocalizations and gene expression in future offspring. Developmental Psychobiology.
  12. Byrnes, J.J., Gleason, E.D., Schoen, M.K., Lovelock, D.F., Carini, L.M., Byrnes, E.M., Bridges, R.S. 2016. Corrigendum to "Accelerated maternal responding following intra-VTA pertussis toxin treatment" [Behav. Brain Res. 223 (October (2)) (2011) 322-328; Epub 2011 May 6 DOI: 10.1016/j.bbr.2011.04.048]. Behavioural Brain Research.
  13. Vassoler, F.M., Wright, S.J., Byrnes, E.M. 2016. Exposure to opiates in female adolescents alters mu opiate receptor expression and increases the rewarding effects of morphine in future offspring. Neuropharmacology.
  14. Bless, E.P., Yang, J., Acharya, K.D., Nettles, S.A., Vassoler, F.M., Byrnes, E.M., Tetel, M.J. 2016. Adult neurogenesis in the female mouse hypothalamus: Estradiol and high-fat diet alter the generation of newborn neurons expressing estrogen receptor α. eNeuro.
  15. Meadows, K.L., Byrnes, E.M. 2015. Sex-and age-specific differences in relaxin family peptide receptor expression within the hippocampus and amygdala in rats. Neuroscience.
  16. Ravenelle, R., Santolucito, H.B., Byrnes, E.M., Byrnes, J.J., Donaldson, S.T. 2014. Housing environment modulates physiological and behavioral responses to anxiogenic stimuli in trait anxiety male rats. Neuroscience.
  17. Vassoler, F.M., Byrnes, E.M., Pierce, R.C. 2014. The impact of exposure to addictive drugs on future generations: Physiological and behavioral effects. Neuropharmacology.
  18. Vassoler, F.M., Johnson-Collins, N.L., Carini, L.M., Byrnes, E.M. 2014. Next generation effects of female adolescent morphine exposure: Sex-specific alterations in response to acute morphine emerge before puberty. Behavioural Pharmacology.
  19. Byrnes, E.M., Casey, K., Carini, L.M., Bridges, R.S. 2013. Reproductive Experience Alters Neural and Behavioural Responses to Acute Oestrogen Receptor α Activation. Journal of Neuroendocrinology.
  20. Vassoler, F.M., Johnson, N.L., Byrnes, E.M. 2013. Female adolescent exposure to cannabinoids causes transgenerational effects on morphine sensitization in female offspring in the absence of in utero exposure. Journal of Psychopharmacology.

General Research Interests

The overarching theme of my current research is identifying mechanisms by which various experiences lead to long-term changes in neural and endocrine systems. Moreover, we are interested in how sex influences the impact of particular experiences on both brain and behavior. Currently we have three main areas of focus. The first involves studies examining the transgenerational consequences of adolescent drug exposure (opiates and cannabinoids) in female rats with an emphasis on multigenerational patterns of substance abuse. The second involves studies examining the effects of both sex and experience on the neural regulation of the stress axis, particularly as it relates to modifications in anxiety and depressive-like behaviors. The third involves studies examining the effects of prenatal substance use (opiates and cocaine) on both the female and her offspring.

Selected Research Projects

  • Epigenetic Effects of Adolescent Opiate or Cannabinoid Exposure

The nonmedical use of powerful prescription pain killers, such as Oxycontin®, is of growing concern, especially in adolescent populations. This project uses an animal model to examine the effects of opiate exposure during adolescent development on both the female and her future offspring. Recent studies have focused on modifications in hypothalamic circuits that impact both addiction and metabolism. Similar studies regarding the long-term effects of cannabinoids are also ongoing with an emphasis on sex-specific alterations in executive function.

  • Effects of sex, age, and experience on anxiety and stress-related behaviors

Sex, age, and experience influence neuronal morphology as well as both gene and protein expression in numerous brain regions. Many of these effects may be mediated by persistent modifications in endocrine factors and subsequent changes in DNA methylation patterns.  These projects use animal models to examine modifications in anxiety, fear, and stress-related behaviors as a function of sex, age, and prior experiences. An overarching goal of this program is to advance biomarker discovery at the preclinical stage.

  • Prenatal Opiates; Patterns of Use and Neurodevelopmental Outcomes

The number of women testing positive for opiates during pregnancy has increased 4-fold in the past decade. Understanding changes in use patterns by pregnant women as well as developing preclinical models to assess long-term outcomes in exposed offspring is an important area of research. Our current studies utilize an oxycodone self-administration paradigm in female rodents to determine the efficacy of replacement therapies on both mother and offspring.  

Research and Clinical Interests


  • Transgenerational Epigenetics

Research Interests by Area

Neuroscience and Reproductive Biology
  • Neurobiology of Maternal Behavior

    Appropriate coordination of the reproductive axis is critical for species propagation. In mammals, reproductive processes and associated behaviors are regulated by the central nervous system. Neural signals are critical for synchronizing the release of hormones in response to developmental, experiential, and environmental factors. In addition, the brain controls the expression of behaviors necessary for mating and parenting. Dysregulation of the reproductive axis can have significant consequences for the individual, their offspring, and the species. Learn more.

  • Animal Models of Psychiatric and Neurological Disorders

    Animal models of are frequently used to elucidate disease mechanisms and identify potential therapeutic targets. A large number of preclinical models of psychiatric disorders have been developed in rodents. Additionally, spontaneous clinical models of psychiatric disorders, such as separation anxiety and compulsive disorder, have been documented in dogs. With regard to neurological disorders, conditions such as stroke, can be induced in rodent models and are also observed clinically in companion animals. Information regarding genetic predisposition, sex-specificity, and age-related factors can also be assessed using these types of animal models. Learn more

  • Transgenerational Epigenetics

    Transgenerational epigenetic inheritance involves the transmission of traits from one generation to the next in the absence of underlying changes in primary DNA structure.  In this manner, the experience of the parent can induce genetic modifications in their future offspring and beyond. It has been hypothesized that such rapid inheritance may be adaptive as it essentially prepares future generations for environmental conditions as predicted by parental experience. The mechanisms underlying transgenerational epigenetic inheritance include processes that regulate gene expression, including DNA methylation and expression of small, non-coding RNAs. Our understanding of how these epigenetic modifications are transmitted from one generation to the next remains quite limited. Learn more.

Current Lab Members

  • Dr. Fair Vassoler, Postdoctoral Associate
  • Kristy Meadows, Graduate Student, Comparative Biomedical Sciences
  • Anika Toorie, Postdoctoral Fellow

Internal Collaborators

  • Dr. Benjamin Nephew, Assistant Professor, Biomedical Sciences, Cummings School
  • Dr. Andrew Hoffman, Professor, Clinical Sciences, Cummings School
  • Dr. Giovanni Widmer, Professor, IDGH, Cummings School
  • Dr. Klaus Miczek, Professor, Psychology, Arts and Sciences

Outside Collaborators

  • Dr. Josephine Johns, Professor, Psychiatry, University of North Carolina, Medical School, Chapel Hill, NC
  • Dr. Jill McGaughy, Associate Professor, Psychology, University of New Hampshire, Durham, NH
  • Dr. Christopher Murgatroyd, Lecturer, Division of Health Science, Manchester Metropolitan University, Manchester, United Kingdom
  • Dr. William Carlezon, Psychiatry, McLean Hospital, Harvard University, Belmont, MA
  • Dr. Jill Turner, Assistant Professor, Drug Discovery & Biomedical Sciences, College of Pharmacy, Medical University of South Carolina, Columbia, SC