Faculty Advisor or Committee Member

Jagan Srinivasan, Advisor

Faculty Advisor or Committee Member

Joseph B. Duffy, Committee Member

Faculty Advisor or Committee Member

Elizabeth F. Ryder, Committee Member

Faculty Advisor or Committee Member

Mark Alkema, Committee Member




Understanding how the human brain functions on a molecular and cellular level is nearly impossible with current technology and ethical considerations. Utilizing the small nematode, Caenorhabditis elegans, and its innate behavioral responses to olfactory social cues, we can begin to unravel the mechanisms underlying social behavior. This is made possible given that innate behaviors are crucial for survival, and therefore hardwired into the genome of organisms. This allows for genetic-level analysis of neural circuitries driving behavior. Studying the neuronal mechanisms underlying C. elegans’ behavioral responses to social cues will not only assist in our overall understanding of how the brain perceives stimuli to enact a behavioral response at the cellular and molecular level, but also our understanding as to how the nervous system properly integrates information to enact social behavioral responses: mis-integration and social abnormalities are commonalities seen in many neuropsychiatric disorders, and these studies will provide fruitful insights into the defects observed in these disorders. Lastly, by comparing the perception of several different types of social chemicals, we can further our understanding of neural coding strategies for the various behaviors crucial for survival. Chapter One of this thesis orients the reader to social, innate behavior, and the usefulness of C. elegans as a tool for understanding behavioral coding. Chapter Two explores and establishes the required components of a socially aversive pheromone, providing insight into signaling evolution and co-option of biological machineries. Chapter Three examines how multiple, competing stimuli are integrated to modulate behavioral output, furthering our understanding of molecular and cellular integration and decision making within the nervous system. Chapter Four highlights the importance of predator pressure, and provides insights into circuit strategies of redundant and promiscuous networks of threat detection. Lastly, Chapter Five considers the implications of these findings as a whole, in the perspective of evolutionary strategies leading to neuronal coding of different behavioral outputs. Taken together, this dissertation aimed to fill the void in our understanding of social behavior neural circuitries, and how integration governed at the molecular and cellular level of the nervous system affects those behaviors.


Worcester Polytechnic Institute

Degree Name



Biology & Biotechnology

Project Type


Date Accepted





neurons tyra-2 neurobiology behavior c. elegans

Available for download on Wednesday, December 11, 2019