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Donald Iain MacDonald

As a Branco Weiss Fellow, Dr. Donald Iain MacDonald will investigate the brain’s ability to turn off pain in the face of danger. Combining neurobiological, molecular, and behavioral approaches, he will study how injured prey animals suppress their pain when threatened by predators.


United Kingdom

Academic Career

  • Visiting Fellow, National Institutes of Health, USA, 2021-present
  • Postdoctoral Scientist, University of Zurich, 2020
  • PhD in Neuroscience, University College London, United Kingdom, 2015-2020
  • BA (Hon.) in Cell and Systems Biology, University of Oxford, United Kingdom, 2012-2015

Major Awards

  • European Molecular Biology Organization Postdoctoral Fellowship, 2021
  • Bogue Fellowship, 2019
  • Howard Hughes Medical Institute Scholarship and Helmsley Scholarship, 2017
  • Biochemical Society Science Communication Prize, 2016
  • Leonard Wolfson PhD Fellowship in Neurodegeneration, 2015
  • British Pharmacological Society BSc Prize, 2015


Branco Weiss Fellow Since

Research Category

Research Location
National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, USA

Chronic pain afflicts a fifth of the population, but effective treatments are few. We urgently need new approaches to develop better painkillers. Despite the ever-increasing burden of chronic pain on our society, progress has been slow in investigating the emotional dimension of pain and its modulation by the brain. When an injured animal encounters a predator, ongoing pain is suppressed by the brain to enable the successful execution of defensive behaviors essential for survival. By identifying and manipulating the evolutionarily-conserved pathways for shutting off pain, it may be possible to identify new molecular targets to treat pain where it hurts – in the brain.
Details of Research
Animals must prioritize between competing threats to guide behavior. Pain is suppressed in the face of danger because attending to injury would disrupt other actions more essential to survival. Since the first predators appeared half a billion years ago, arms races between predator and prey species have been key drivers of brain evolution. Together with the observation that predators preferentially target injured animals, this leads to the hypothesis that pain suppression evolved during predator-prey conflicts to increase the chance of survival. Dr. Donald Iain MacDonald therefore wants to use the ‘natural’ stimulus for pain suppression – predatory threat – to reveal evolutionary-conserved circuits that turn off pain in the mouse brain. Combining quantitative behavior, activity-dependent circuit manipulations, in vivo imaging and molecular analysis, Dr. MacDonald will identify and characterize predator-activated neurons that inhibit pain. Ultimately, he aims to use predator exposure as a gateway to find new cellular and molecular targets for pain relief.