Carmen Varela

Assistant Professor

Recruiting a graduate student for Fall of 2024

Carmen Varela

Contact Information



University of Chicago, 2008

Research Interests

My laboratory aims to elucidate the mechanisms (cellular, network, computational) by which thalamic cells and networks contribute to learning and memory. A primary goal is to shed light on the spike and local field potential dynamics that facilitate learning and memory across the sleep-wake cycle. One of our general hypotheses is that thalamic networks allow mammals to learn and update the internal mental models of the world that are the foundation of adaptive behavior.

Current Research

Ongoing experiments include determining the sleep spindle cell dynamics that promote memory consolidation and cognitive flexibility in rats. This project is funded by a grant from the Whitehall Foundation, and is led by postdoctoral fellow Dr. Zoe Atherton.  A second project aims to develop innovative methods for closed-loop regulation of sleep oscillations to improve cognitive function. This project is supported by a UG3/UH3 grant from NIMH as part of a collaboration with Dr. Dara Manoach at Harvard-MGH, and is led in my lab by postdoctoral fellow Dr. Annie da Costa Souza.  One more project seeks to determine the link between thalamic activity and sleep microarchitecture. This is funded by a grant from the Alzheimer’s Association and we are currently looking for a student or post-bac to lead this set of experiments. 

Lab Description

We employ several experimental and data analysis methods, including extracellular electrophysiology, optogenetics, and behavior analysis, to gain unique insights into the spike dynamics and brain states that enable rodents to learn and make sense of their environment. These projects provide advanced neuroscience training and a solid career foundation for lab students and postdocs, preparing them to lead the field in the future.

We are a highly interactive and multi-disciplinary lab. A major strength of our team is the diversity of backgrounds, cultures, and viewpoints, which all enhance the learning experience for trainees. If you are interested in joining the lab, contact Carmen for more info.

We value diversity and look forward to backgrounds from Neuroscience, Psychology, Physics, Computer Science, Engineering.

Varela C, Wilson MA. Reversal Learning: It's just a phase. Current Biology. Vol. 32, Issue 15, pr849-r851, AUGUST 08, 2022. ​

Becker LA, Penagos H, Flores FF, Manoach DS, Wilson MA, Varela C. Eszopiclone and Zolpidem Produce Opposite Effects on Hippocampal Ripple Density. Frontiers in Pharmacology. 2022.​

Desai, N; Varela, C. Distinct Burst Properties Contribute to the Functional Diversity of Thalamic Nuclei. J Comp Neurol. 2021 Mar 15.

Varela C, Wilson MA. mPFC Spindle Cycles Organize Sparse Thalamic Activation and Recently Active CA1 cells During non-REM Sleep. eLife. 2020 June 11; DOI: 10.7554/eLife.48881.​

Wilson MA, Varela C, Remondes M. Phase organization of network computations. Current Opinion in Neurobiology 2015. Feb10; 31C:250-253. doi: 10.1016/j.conb.2014.12.011.​

Varela C, Kumar S, Yang JY, Wilson MA. Anatomical substrates for direct interactions between hippocampus, medial prefrontal cortex and the thalamic nucleus reuniens. Brain Structure & Function 219, no. 3 (May 2014): 911–29. doi:10.1007/s00429-013-0543-5. ​

Undergraduate Research

Explore the Directed Individual Study (DIS) opportunities below or learn more.


Zoe S. Atherton
Postdoctoral Fellow
Annie da Costa Souza
Postdoctoral Fellow