Psychology (Behavioral Neuroscience) (PhD)

Behavioral Neuroscience

The Behavioral Neuroscience (BN) program provides an extensive range of instruction and is committed to training the next generation of behavioral neuroscientists who will take their place as experimental psychologists in departments of psychology, at major research institutions, and in industry. Our graduate students are trained in:

  • theoretical and applied bases of empirical questions
  • appropriate approaches to take in their research
  • important factors in research design
  • techniques for successful execution of experiments
  • applications of various types of data analyses


Our program consists of faculty with diverse research interests including: learning and memory (Bimonte-Nelson, Conrad; Sanabria); mathematical modeling of behavior (Sanabria); aging, neurodegenerative diseases, and hormone modulation (Bimonte-Nelson); behavioral and neurobiological consequences of drug abuse and stress (Olive, Conrad, Gipson-Reichardt); stress and brain plasticity (Conrad); timing and time perception (Sanabria); ADHD and impulsivity (Sanabria); and canine cognition and behavior (Wynne). Prospective grad students interested in joining our program are encouraged to learn more about the faculty research and to directly contact BN faculty with any questions or comments. Some faculty within the Department of Psychology also participate in the Interdisciplinary Neuroscience Graduate Program.

Undergrads who are interested in gaining research lab experience should visit the department's Research Opportunities pages for more information on how to apply to a lab that matches their interests. In general, research lab experience is limited to psychology majors. 


Prospective Students

Career Goals: The behavioral neuroscience concentration is committed to training the next generation of behavioral neuroscientists in the areas of learning and memory; psychopharmacology; physiological psychology; neuroanatomy; and neuroendocrinology.

Collaborations: Collaborations are an important component in our behavioral neuroscience program.There are many opportunities to participate in research programs in behavioral neuroscience within the psychology department, across ASU departments, and with researchers at other institutions such as the University of Arizona, Barrow Neurological Institute, the Mayo Clinic, TGen, Northern Arizona University, National Institute of Health, the University of South Florida, and the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign.

How to Apply to the BN Program:

  • All interested applicants should review the doctoral admission information for the Department of Psychology.
  • Applicants are encouraged to directly contact potential faculty mentors for openings and positions in their laboratories. Academic record and fit in potential research labs are key for successful admission.
  • Per ASU International Graduate Student Admission, TOEFL or IELTS scores are required for non-native English speakers unless other criteria have been met.

Research Experience. Graduate study blends formal course work and laboratory research to provide students with both a broad knowledge base and specialized skills applicable to their personalized research program. Throughout their training, students participate in graduate seminars, tool skill courses, and advanced content courses in psychology and related disciplines. Students engage in research with faculty mentors from their first semester, with the first-year research experience culminating in a paper and oral presentation. In subsequent years of study, the course work and research projects are individually tailored to each student's particular interests and talents. Research becomes more independent as students complete a master's thesis and doctoral dissertation. During this time, students are also encouraged to present at local and national conferences, and to submit their research for publication.

Teaching Experience. Students may gain teaching experience by serving as teaching assistants or lab instructors of undergraduate and introductory graduate courses under the supervision of the faculty who are teaching the course. This experience is especially valuable for students with plans to pursue a career in academia.

FAQs.  Below are some commonly asked questions by prospective students about the BN program:

What is the acceptance rate of students who apply?
There is not a certain quota of students that are accepted or declined. Generally, applicants are accepted based on the compatibility between the applicant’s research interest and an individual faculty member’s need.         

Does the behavioral neuroscience department have lab rotations the first year?
No, during the first year, students choose a research mentor under whose supervision they complete a “first year research project,” culminating in a paper and oral presentation. The presentation is scheduled at the end of the spring semester and has come to represent a celebration of the completion of the first year.

What kind of degree do I need to enter a graduate program in behavioral neuroscience?
Students with a Bachelors of Science or Bachelors of Arts degree from an accredited university are encouraged to apply. Most applicants have taken several basic science courses including: biology, chemistry and physiology.          

Will my master's degree from a different area help my graduate studies in behavioral neuroscience?
Applicants are encouraged to apply from a variety of different disciplines. Each applicant will be reviewed on a case by case basis taking into consideration the nature of the graduate degree, the applicants previous course work and research interests.   

How much independent research can I expect in addition to my own research?
This is dependent on your mentor. If you are given a research assistantship expect to spend approximately 20 hours a week in addition to your own research project.        

Do I need research experience?
No, this is not a requirement, but it is a desired quality. Research techniques are usually learned in the process of completing your first year project. However, advisors typically will look for preliminary qualifications such as processing the scientific theory at a cognitive rather than a procedural level. It should be noted that most successful applicants do have some research experience that demonstrates their capacity to work in the lab and to think analytically. 


The coursework for each student is individualized and based upon the student's previous training, research goals, and mentor and committee consensus.

Core courses. Three courses covering the basic content in behavioral neuroscience from the following:

  • PSY 512 Advanced Learning
  • PSY 524 Physological Psychology
  • PSY 591 courses: Neuropsychopharmacology, Neuroendocrinology, Neuroanatomy, Neurophysiology, Psychopharmacology, Behavioral Neuroscience, and Stress  and the Brain

Breadth Courses. At least one course, to be agreed upon with the mentor, from the courses above or:

  • PSY 525  Cognitive Psychology
  • PSY 528  Sensation and Perception
  • BCH 461 Biochemistry
  • PSY 624 Clinical Neuroscience
  • PSY 573 Psychopathology
  • PSY 591 courses: Mathematical Psychology, History and Systems of Psychology or other courses deemed appropriate by the mentor, such as cell biology, genetics, immunology, etc.

Skill Courses. Two courses:

  • PSY 530 Intermediate Statistics (ANOVA)
  • PSY 531 Regression Analysis

In-Depth Seminars. Two topical seminar courses, selected from those made available over the student's time in the program. These courses tend to be decided upon according to the interests of the current faculty and student body.

Research Seminar and Research Hours. Each semester, students enroll in PSY 598 Behavioral Neuroscience Research Seminar, a weekly forum for presenting new research and discussing current topics. In addition, students enroll in the milestone-related courses below:

  • PSY 590 Reading and Conference
  • PSY 592 Research
  • PSY 599 Thesis
  • PSY 790 Reading and Conference
  • PSY 792 Research
  • PSY 799 Dissertation 


First Year Project. The first year project involves research under the direct supervision of the student's mentor. This project culminates in a paper and brief oral presentation at the end of the student's first year, and often symbolizes a celebration of the completion of their first year in graduate school.

Master's Thesis. The master's thesis is typically undertaken in the second year. It is an original piece of research, closely supervised by the research advisor and is often a continuation of the first year project. The student defends the thesis before a committee consisting of his or her advisor and two additional faculty members. The thesis leads to the M.A. degree.

Comprehensive Examination. Generally during the third year of graduate school, the student concentrates much of his or her effort on a scholarly review of four areas of behavioral neuroscience, one for each of the four members on their comprehensive examination committee. The student, in the process of reviewing the literature from the selected reading lists, becomes an expert in the areas, which are often the basis of the doctoral dissertation or are research areas the student plans to pursue in the future. The comprehensive examination involves a two-step process. The student first completes a written exam consisting of questions from each area, and a week later, the student defends the written responses before the committee and answers other questions posed by the committee.

Doctoral Dissertation. The doctoral dissertation is an extensive piece of original research that demonstrates the capability of the student to act as an independent scholar in experimental methods. The dissertation is closely supervised by the research advisor and three additional faculty members, who constitute the dissertation committee. The dissertation process begins with the dissertation proposal, a written document that provides a comprehensive scholarly introduction to the research and a complete description of the research to be undertaken. Once the oral defense of the dissertation proposal is completed, the student is admitted to PhD candidacy by ASU's Graduate College. Next, the psychology department requires a "data meeting," a working meeting in which the empirical and/or analytical outcomes are reviewed by the whole committee. Any further needed work is discussed. The student then defends the dissertation in a final oral examination.

For additional information about doctoral program milestones and required forms, visit our Graduate Resources page.


CORE FACULTY:   Bimonte-Nelson    Conrad     Gipson-Reichardt      Olive      Sanabria     Wynne

Heather Bimonte Nelson, PhD, Professor and Behavioral Neuroscience Area Head. Research Interests: The objective of our research is to determine relationships between hormonal, cognitive, and neurobiological alterations during aging using animal models.  Research Projects/Lab: Neuroscience of Memory and Aging Laboratory.

Cheryl D. Conrad, PhD, Professor, Barrett Honors Disciplinary Faculty, and Assistant Vice President of Research Development. Research Interests: Our research studies investigate (1) morphological and functional changes in the hippocampus following chronic stress and (2) the mechanism(s) that underlie changes in hippocampal dendritic morphology following chronic stress to facilitate treatment strategies for cognitive improvement. Research Projects/Lab: Behavioral Neuroscience Research in Stress Laboratory

Cassandra Gipson-Reichardt, PhD, Assistant Professor. Research Interests: The goal of my research is to identify novel pharmacological and behavioral interventions for the treatment of drug abuse, and explore the neurobiological substrates of addiction. Research Projects/Lab: Neurobiology and Behavior in Addiction Laboratory.

Foster Olive, PhD, Associate Professor. Research Interests: Drug Abuse. Research Projects/Lab: Addiction Neuroscience Laboratory.

Federico Sanabria, PhD, Associate Professor. Research Interests: We study basic processes that are critical to understand human and non-human behavior. Research Projects/Lab: Basic Behavioral Processes Laboratory.

Clive Wynne, PhD, Professor. Research Interests: I'm interested in the behavior and cognition of animals in general with a particular interest in dogs and other canid. Research Projects/Lab: Canine Science Collaboratory.

Candace R. Lewis honored with Fulbright Scholarship. As a Behavioral Neuroscience graduate student with Dr. Foster Olive, Candace Lewis was recently awarded a national Fulbright Scholarship and the Science Foundation of Arizona’s Post-Doctoral Bisgrove Fellowship.Through the Fulbright Scholarship, Candace will spend a year at the University Hospital of Psychiatry in Zurich, Switzerland where she will be characterizing the effects of psychedelic compounds in humans using neuroimaging techniques. As a Bisgrove Fellow, Candace will have a joint appointment with the Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen) studying the complex interplay between early life environment, genetic regulation and expression, and behavioral outcomes with the Arizona Twin Project. Under the mentorship of Dr. Kathryn Lemery, Dr. Leah Doane and Dr. Matt Huentelman, Candace aims to advance understanding of psychiatric vulnerability and to inform novel individualized biomarkers, preventions, and therapies. Congratulations Candace! (posted 6/25/15).

Stephanie Koebele wins Young Investigator Award at the 10th European Congress on Menopause and Andropause (EMAS). Although it's always an accomplishment to be honored by a conference award, Behavioral Neuroscience grad student Stephanie Koebele has broken significant barriers in the menopause field by presenting her research at a clinical conference and showing that impactful research for humans can be done using the rodent model. Says her mentor, Dr. Heather Bimonte-Nelson, "This was a year long longitudinal rat study testing memory and brain and ovary follicular depletion across time, modeling menopause as it transitions during aging. This was a Herculean project and Stephanie did it with a critical eye and a thoughtful, translational, creative approach." Congratulations Stephanie! (posted 6/9/15).

Amazing Mazes. When the brains of Psychology's Cognitive Science, Behavioral Neuroscience, and Quantitative Methods collide, you’ll undoubtedly get some pioneering research results. With collaborators from the Arizona Alzheimer's Consortium and Barrow Neurological Institute, read how traditional neuro- psychological tests can predict human performance on a rodent-inspired radial-arm maze in the recently published article by Frontiers in Behavior Neuroscience. (posted 1/23/2015).

A Gift from Mars. Dr. Clive Wynne and his Canine Science Collaboratory (CSC) are excited to be the recipient of a generous gift from Mars Veterinary, a division of Mars Inc. This gift will enable the CSC to explore how the adoption of shelter dogs can be influenced by reliable information about a dog’s breed. Traditionally, the heritage of mixed-breed dogs is guessed at from their appearance. The WISDOM PANEL® from Mars Veterinary can identify a dog’s pure-bred ancestors back to the great-grandparents by assessment of its genetic markers obtained from a cheek swab sample. The CSC project will assess three questions using the resources provided by Mars Veterinary. The first is simply to identify the true breed identity of dogs at shelters - a long unanswerable question. The second is to evaluate the impact of accurate breed labeling on adoption rates. Finally, the CSC will explore the relationship between breed heritage and behavior in these mixed-breed shelter dogs. The project is starting at Arizona Animal Welfare League in Phoenix, but will go national in the new year (posted 12/6/14).

Can We Talk? Psychology professor Dr. Clive Wynne has learned a new trick about dogs. Based on recent research it seems that dogs prefer petting over verbal praise. As study co-author Dr. Clive Wynne told The Huffington Post, "I spend half my day talking to my dog. She always looks like it's valuable to her. It's quite a shock to discover that what we say to dogs doesn't seem to be rewarding to them after all." To learn more about Dr. Wynne's work with dogs and other canine species, visit the Canine Science Collaboratory (posted 11/10/14).

Heather Bimonte-Nelson, one of Psychology's most prolific scientists, has recently received a $1.6 million NIH grant to study brain health and the cognitive effects of menopause which can include memory impairment. Dr. Bimonte-Nelson's Neuroscience of Aging & Memory Lab has conducted research studies that have tested individual and combined hormonal therapies with the goal to improve cognitive and brain aging, while obviating potentially negative peripheral effects due to treatment. According to Dr. Bimonte-Nelson, finding the optimal hormonal profile is the "beautiful balance that will result in a healthy aging brain.” Congratulations Heather!  Read More. (posted 10/9/13).

Olive's Optogenetics. Associate Professor of Psychology Dr. Foster Olive was recently awarded over $190,000 for new brain research. The goal of this grant is to use the technique of “optogenetics” to study the function of a protein called the mGluR5 receptor in drug addiction. Optogenetics (NSF image above) involves genetically manipulating specific cells - or even specific proteins - within the brain so that they can be controlled by tiny pulses of light, allowing ultra-precise control over the activity of the mGluR5 protein in specific types of brain cells and in specific regions of the brain. For more information about Dr. Olive's work visit his Addiction Neuroscience Lab (posted 9/30/14).

Brain Fair Huge Success! Organized by grad student Stephanie Koebele and ASU Psychology alum Lauren Hewitt, last Saturday's Brain Fair at Gangplank Labs Initiative drew hundreds of parents and future Sun Devils as kids from elementary grades through high school learned about brains, neurons and science. Brain Fairs are the brain child of Dr. Heather Bimonte-Nelson, Associate Professor of Psychology and Director of Psychology’s Neuroscience of Memory and Aging Lab (posted 8/26/14).

Front Runner Lucas Watterson Down the Home Stretch.  Behavioral Neuroscience graduate student Lucas Watterson was awarded the Robert B. Cialdini Dissertation Project Prize in Psychology last month for his doctoral thesis titled, “Methamphetamine and novel “legal high” methamphetamine mimetics: abuse liability, toxicity, and potential pharmaco-behavioral treatments.”  He also received the GPSA Teaching Excellence Award and the CLAS Graduate Excellence Award making him a triple crown winner. Notes his advisor Dr. Foster Olive, “Lucas is a hard worker and truly deserves these great honors.”  With a research focus in addiction and neuropsycho-pharmacology, Lucas will be graduating this Fall. Congratulations Lucas! (posted 5/2014).


Degree Offered

Psychology (PhD)
Liberal Arts & Sciences, College of


Plan of Study

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