Kay Tye

2021 National Award Winner — Faculty

Kay Tye

Current Position:
Professor, Wyle Vale Chair

Salk Institute for Biological Studies


Recognized for:

Problems in processing reward, fear, and learning can cause a range of psychiatric disorders. Kay Tye, PhD, investigates the neural circuitry that drives these emotions and cognitive abilities to understand addiction and depression better. She discovered a neural pathway that underlies an animal’s willingness to engage in compulsive reward-seeking behaviors despite negative consequences. Her addiction research has also found a collection of neurons that serve as a biomarker that predicts whether an animal will develop compulsive binge drinking behavior, based on the neural responses to the first exposure to alcohol.

Kay Tye

Areas of Research Interest and Expertise: Neuroscience, Addiction, Loneliness, Neural Circuits, Optogenetics

Previous Positions:

Wyle Vale Professor, Salk Institute for Biological Studies
Associate Professor with Tenure, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Assistant Professor, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Post-Doctoral Fellow, Stanford University
Post-Doctoral Fellow, Ernest Gallo Clinic and Research Center
PhD, University of California, San Francisco
BS, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Research Summary:

Kay Tye, PhD, has broken boundaries in the search to unearth the neural circuits in the brain that processes emotional valence—how intrinsically attractive or aversive something is to us. The ability to sense and learn the negative and/or positive aspects of an experience is critical for survival. It motivates an animal to avoid pain or to engage in rewarding behaviors such as eating. Tye’s research stands out as she not only observes the brain areas where emotional valence is processed, but actually identifies the specific neural circuits involved in emotional valence by using optogenetics—a technology uses light-sensitive genetically-encodable proteins to selectively activate or inhibit neurons.

Analyzing the neural circuits controlling valence processing is important since psychiatric and substance abuse disorders such as binge-eating and alcohol use disorder involve compulsive reward-seeking behaviors, despite the negative consequences. Tye identified a neural circuit that is involved in this phenomenon. She has even discovered that a population of neurons connecting the cerebral cortex to the brainstem can serve as a biomarker to predict whether an animal will develop compulsive alcohol drinking behavior.

Tye continues to uncover the details of several unexplored neural circuits connected to a range of psychosocial phenomena, including loneliness. For example, she explored a rarely studied group of neurons in the brainstem that produces dopamine and found that they are the first group of neurons activated when animals are exposed to social isolation and experience a “loneliness-like” state. Tye’s research on neural circuits and emotions will elucidate the fundamental neural circuitry of human emotions and will help target treatments for psychiatric and substance use disorders.

It is an incredible honor for both myself and my incredible research team with whom I feel privileged to work. We are committed to continuing our efforts to understand the neural mechanisms underlying emotional and social processing.

Key Publications:

  1. G.A. Matthews, E.H. Nieh, C.M. Vander Weele, S.A. Halbert, R.V. Pradhan, A.S. Yosafat, G.F. Glober, E.M. Izadmehr, R.E. Thomas, G.D. Lacy, C.P. Wildes, M.A. Ungless, K.M.Tye. Dorsal Raphe Dopamine Neurons Represent the Experience of Social Isolation. Cell. 2016

  2. C.M. Vander Weele, C.A. Siciliano, G.A. Matthews, P. Namburi, E.M. Izadmehr, I.C. Espinel, H. Nieh, E.H.S Schut, N. Padilla-Coreano, A. Burgos-Robles, C.J. Chang, E.Y. Kimchi, A. Beyeler, R. Wichmann, C.P. Wildes, K.M.Tye. Dopamine enhances signal-to-noise ratio in cortical-brainstem encoding of aversive stimuli. Nature. 2018

  3. S.A. Allsop, R. Wichmann, F. Mills, A. Burgos-Robles, C.J. Chang, A.C. Felix-Ortiz, A. Vienne, A. Beyeler, E.M. Izadmehr, G. Glober, M.I. Cum, J. Stergiadou, K.K. Anandalingam, K. Farris, P. Namburi, C.A. Leppla, J.C. Weddington, E.H. Nieh, A.C. Smith, D. Ba, E.N. Brown, K.M. K.M.Tye. Corticoamygdala Transfer of Socially Derived Information Gates Observational Learning. Cell. 2018

  4. C.A. Siciliano, H. Noamany, C-J. Chang, A.R. Brown, X. Chen, D. Leible, J.J. Lee, J. Wang, A.N. Vernon, C.M. Vander Weele, E.Y. Kimchi, M. Heiman, K.M. Tye. A Cortical-Brainstem Circuit Predicts and Governs Compulsive Alcohol Drinking. Science. 2019

Other Honors:

2020 Daniel H. Efron Research Award, American College of Neuropsychopharmacology
2019 Tsuneko and Reiji Okazaki Award, Institute of Transformative Bio-Molecules, Nagoya University
2019 Wylie Vale Endowed Chair
2018 Award for Outstanding Postdoctoral Mentorship, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
2017 Director’s Pioneer Award, National Institutes of Health
2017 Science News’ Top 10 Scientists to Watch, Science News
2016 Young Investigator Award, Society for Neuroscience
2016 Daniel X. Freedman Award, Brain and Behavior Research Foundation
2016 Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers, National Science Foundation
2015 McKnight Scholar Award, McKnight Foundation

In the Media:

MIT Technology Review – "Why do you feel lonely? Neuroscience is starting to find answers"

Once a Scientist– "Salk neuroscientist, Kay Tye, on work-life balance and reducing stigma in mental health"