Staci Bilbo, Ph.D.

Photo of Staci Bilbo

Phone: 919-681-7005

3016 GSRB II
572 Research Drive
Box 91050
Durham, NC 27708

Email: staci DOT bilbo AT duke DOT edu

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Associate Professor

Psychology & Neuroscience, Arts & Sciences

DIBS Faculty

Research Description

The overarching goal of research in my lab is to understand the mechanisms by which the immune, endocrine, and nervous systems interact, and how these interactions influence behavioral outcomes such as cognition, emotion and addiction. Immune molecules powerfully impact neuroendocrine function, including hormone-behavior interactions, during health and disease. Similarly, alterations in hormones, such as during stress, can powerfully impact immune function or reactivity. These functional shifts are primarily adaptive responses that organize changes in behavior and mobilize immune resources, but can also lead to pathology or exacerbate disease. The developing brain in particular is exquisitely sensitive to both endogenous and exogenous signals, and increasing evidence suggests the immune system has a critical role in brain development. Microglia and astrocytes, the primary immunocompetent cells of the CNS, are involved in every major aspect of brain development and function, including synaptogenesis, synaptic pruning and engulfment of apoptotic cells, and angiogenesis. Cytokines such as tumor necrosis factor [TNF]α, interleukin [IL]-1β, and IL-6 are produced by glia within the CNS, and are implicated in synaptic formation and scaling, long-term potentiation, and neurogenesis, in development as well as in the adult brain.

Importantly, cytokines are involved in both injury and repair, and the conditions underlying these distinct outcomes are under intense investigation and debate. Notably, evidence from both animal and human studies implicates the immune system in a number of disorders with known or suspected developmental origins, including schizophrenia, autism, and major depression. Thus, the proximate goal of our research program is to determine how seemingly disparate challenges during the perinatal period of life, such as infection, stressors, or drugs of abuse, may converge on the immune system and thereby markedly influence brain development, as well as cognitive and affective behaviors throughout the remainder of the lifespan. Conversely, we are also exploring how interventions, such as nurturing maternal care or environmental enrichment, can work to counteract the deleterious effects of early-life infection, trauma, or stress, again via their impact on neuroimmune communication. Finally, for each of these questions/research areas, we are also beginning to focus on the role of epigenetic changes specifically within innate immune cells of the brain, microglia, in enduring (and potentially transgenerational) neural and behavioral outcomes.

There are 4 major projects in the lab: 1. Early-Life Infection and Later-Life Cognitive Impairment 2. Maternal Obesity and Programming of Neuroinflammation Throughout the Lifespan 3. Role of Glia in Addiction and Reward 4. Early-Life Stress and interactions with Environmental Pollution on Birth Outcomes

These seemingly disparate challenges all appear to activate glial cells via the innate immune system’s pattern recognition receptors, toll-like receptors (TLRs), which have been referred to as generic “danger” receptors. Taken together, we believe that the potential neuroimmune mechanisms underlying such seemingly disparate challenges have been relatively ignored, and may in fact share many similarities. If true, then these collective data should provide novel insight into the influence of early immune activation on neural and immune system development, the role that the brain’s immune response plays in cognition, and ultimately treatment decisions.


Ph.D., The Johns Hopkins University, Psychological and Brain Sciences, 2003

M.A., The Johns Hopkins University

B.A., The University of Texas at Austin, Biology/Psychology, 1998

Recent Publications

Schwarz, JM, and Bilbo SD. (2013) Adolescent morphine exposure affects long-term microglial function and later-life relapse liability in a model of addiction. Journal of Neuroscience, 33(3): 961-71.

Bilbo, SD & Schwarz, JM. (2012) The immune system and developmental programming of brain and behavior. Frontiers in Neuroendocrinology, 33(3): 267-86.

Williamson, LL, Smith, SH, Sholar, PW, Mistry RS, and Bilbo, SD. (2011) Microglia and memory: modulation by early-life infection. Journal of Neuroscience, 31(43): 15511-21.

Research Areas

Research Topics

  • Neuroimmune interactions and behavior
  • Cytokines and Cognition
  • Early-life origins of Risk and Resilience