University of Southern California

USC Neuroscience

Alan G. Watts

Department of Biological Sciences
Neurobiology Section

President-elect, The Society for the Study of Ingestive Behaviors

Research Topics

  1. Systems neuroscience
  2. Neural control of metabolism
  3. Ingestive behaviors

Research Overview

Our work is directed towards understanding how the brain contributes to the development, manifestation, and complications of diabetes and obesity. We do this in two projects that focus on the neural control of energy metabolism.

The first project investigates how peripheral metabolism interacts with the brain to generate adrenocortical and sympathoadrenal hormonal responses. In particular, we are interested in the way that two critical metabolic signals--glucocorticoid hormones and blood glucose (glycemia)--are sensed by the brain, and then generate appropriate counter-regulatory responses.

How the brain and the body senses changes in blood glucose is a fundamental physiological process, the understanding of which is critical to the etiolology of both forms of diabetes. We are interested in how glucocorticoids and neurotransmitters interact with neurons in the hypothalamus, which is a major integrative locus for metabolic control. A major focus of our work is on sets of hindbrain catecholaminergic neurons that project to the forebrain. These neurons are crucial for detecting and encoding information about blood glucose levels. We investigate the way that catecholaminergic neurons and glucocorticoids affect signal transduction and gene regulatory mechanisms in sets of forebrain neurons responsible for regulating metabolism in health and disease.

This work is highlighted in a recent USC News story:
USC Scientists Find Missing Link in Regulation of Glucose

The second project investigates the neural basis of anorexia using dehydration as a physiological challenge. The goal here is to understand the structure and functional interactions between the neural systems that inhibit and stimulate feeding, particularly between the cortex, hypothalamus, and hindbrain.

The techniques we use include: whole animal physiology, in situ hybridization, immunocytochemistry (with confocal and conventional immunofluorescence), tract-tracing, behavioral analysis, and neuroinfomatics.

Contact Information

Mailing Address:
University of Southern California
Hedco Neuroscience Building, Rm 416
3641 Watt Way
Los Angeles, CA 90089
Office Location:
Office Phone:
(213) 740-1497
Lab Location:
Lab Phone:
(213) 740-1501
(213) 741-0561


  • BSc (Hons): University of Wales, UK
  • D.Phil: University of Oxford, UK
  • Post-Doc: Salk Institute, La Jolla, CA

Selected Publications

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Jokiaho, A J., Donovan, C.M. & Watts, A.G. (2014). The rate of fall of blood glucose during hypoglycemia determines the necessity of forebrain-projecting catecholaminergic neurons for male rat adrenomedullary responses. Diabetes 68: [Epub ahead of print].


Bohland, M., Matveyenko, A.V., Saberi, M., Khan, A.M., Watts, A.G. & Donovan, C.M. (2014). Activation of hindbrain neurons is mediated by portal-mesenteric vein glucosensors during slow-onset hypoglycemia. Diabetes 68: [Epub ahead of print]. -PubMed

Watts, A.G. (2014) How do we know if the brain is wired for type 2 diabetes? Current Diabetes Reports 14: 465. -PubMed

Khan, AM, Walker, EM, Dominguez, N & Watts, AG. (2014) Neural input is critical for arcuate hypothalamic neurons to mount intracellular signaling responses to glycemic challenges in male rats: implications for communication within feeding and metabolic control networks. Endocrinology 155: 405–416. -PubMed

Watts, A.G. & Khan, A.M. (2013) Identifying links in the chain: The dynamic coupling of catecholamines, peptide synthesis, and peptide release in hypothalamic neuroendocrine neurons. Advances in Pharmacology 68: 421-444. -PubMed

Wamsteeker-Cusulin, J.I., Fuzesi T., Watts, A.G., & Bains, J.S. (2013) Characterization of corticotropin-releasing hormone neurons in the paraventricular nucleus of the hypothalamus of Crh-IRES-Cre mutant mice. PLoS One 8(5): e64943 (pp 1-10). -PubMed

Kaminski, K.L. & Watts, A.G. (2012) Intact catecholamine inputs to the forebrain are required for appropriate regulation of CRH and vasopressin gene expression by corticosterone in the rat paraventricular nucleus. J. Neuroendocrinology 24: 1517-1526. -PubMed

Khan, A.M., Kaminski, K.L., Sanchez-Watts, G., Ponzio T.A., Kuzmiski, J.B., Bains, J.S., & Watts, A.G. (2011) MAP kinases couple hindbrain-derived catecholamine signals to hypothalamic adrenocortical control mechanisms during glycemia-related challenges. J. Neuroscience 31: 18479 –18491. -PubMed

Watts, A.G., Sanchez-Watts, G., Liu, Y. and Aguilera, G. (2011) The distribution of messenger RNAs encoding the three isoforms of the Transducer Of Regulated CREB Activity (TORC) in the rat forebrain. J. Neuroendocrinology 23: 754-766. -PubMed

Watts, A.G. & Donovan, C.M. (2010) Sweet talk in the brain: glucosensing, neural networks, and hypoglycemic counterregulation. Frontiers in Neuroendocrinology 31: 32-43. -PubMed