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Christopher K. Thompson

Assistant Professor
  • Ph.D. in Neurobiology and Behavior, University of Washington
Integrated Life Sciences Building (ILSB), Room 2021
Room 2103 (Lab)
1981 Kraft Drive
Blacksburg, VA 24061

Dr. Thompson joined VT on the Summer 2016. He is part of the first new faculty members to join the School of Neuroscience.

Chris was an undergraduate at the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana, where he received a BS in Ecology, Ethology, and Evolution in 2000. He earned his PhD in 2008 from the University of Washington in Neurobiology and Behavior, studying the effects of sex steroid hormones on seasonal changes in the song control system, a brain circuit that controls singing in songbirds, in the laboratory of Prof. Eliot Brenowitz. He continued working with songbirds as an Alexander von Humboldt Fellow at the Freie Universität in Berlin (Germany) in Prof. Constance Scharff’s laboratory, researching several aspects of the song control system development. In 2011, Chris joined Holly Cline’s laboratory at The Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, CA, focusing his research efforts on how thyroid hormone shapes development of the visual system in tadpoles.

The Thompson laboratory focuses on how hormones shape the development and plasticity of neural circuits. Hormones are long-distance messengers that act on tissues throughout the body, but their specific effects vary in time and space. This is particularly true during brain development; hormone action on neural circuits depends upon a combination of transporters, activating and inactivating enzymes, and hormone receptors, all of which vary their levels of expression during ontogeny. Once hormone signaling is initiated, it will unleash a cascade of molecular events that have an enormous impact on the molecular, cellular, and anatomical trajectory of brain growth and function.

Thyroid hormone is a critical regulator of vertebrate brain development, impacting neural cell proliferation, differentiation, and dendritic arbor elaboration pre and postnatally. Disruption of thyroid hormone signaling during development is associated with significant, long-lasting behavioral deficits in humans. The specific molecular and cellular events that are regulated by changes in thyroid hormone signaling are still unclear, however. It is difficult to assess the effects of thyroid hormone on the cellular processes that underlie early brain development in mammalian systems because of the inaccessibility of the brain in the uterine environment and the inability to disambiguate the relative maternal versus fetal contributions of thyroid hormone. African clawed frog (Xenopus laevis) tadpoles are ideal for studies on the molecular and cellular mechanisms underlying thyroid hormone’s effects on brain development because the external development of tadpoles allows manipulation and direct observation of cell proliferation, neuronal differentiation and morphological changes underlying brain development. Furthermore, although a surge of thyroid hormone drives metamorphosis in mature tadpoles, younger tadpoles are acutely sensitive to exposure to thyroid hormone.

Our lab focuses on two aspects of how thyroid hormone affects tadpole brain development: 1) how do changes in thyroid hormone signaling affect neural progenitor cell proliferation, neuronal differentiation, dendritic arborization, cell death, changes in gene expression, and brain morphology? 2) How do manmade compounds suspected to disrupt thyroid hormone signaling affect brain development?  We address these issues in the tadpole visual system using in vivo imaging, whole-mount immunohistochemistry, QPCR, Western blot, and 3D reconstruction.

Peer-reviewed Publications

  • Thompson CK, Cline HT. 2016. Thyroid Hormone Acts Locally to Increase Neurogenesis, Neuronal Differentiation, and Dendritic Arbor Elaboration in the Tadpole Visual System. The Journal of Neuroscience 36(40):10356-10375.
  • Faulkner RL*, Wishard TJ*, Thompson CK, Liu HH, Cline HT. 2014. FMRP regulates neurogenesis in vivo in Xenopus laevis tadpoles. eNeuro 0055-14. 2014
  • Honarmand M*, Thompson CK *, Schatton A, Kipper, S Scharff C. Early nutritional stress negatively affects neural recruitment to avian song system nucleus HVC. Dev Neurobiol. 2015 May 15
  • Thompson CK, Schwabe F, Schoof A, Mendoza E, Gampe J, Rochefort C, Scharff C. 2013. Young and intense: FoxP2 immunoreactivity in Area X varies with age, song stereotypy, and singing in male zebra finches. Front Neural Circuits. 2013;7:24.
  • Düring D, Ziegler A, Thompson CK, Faber C, Müller J, Ziegler A, Scharff C, Elemans C. 2013. The songbird syrinx morphome: a three-dimensional, high-resolution, interactive morphological map of the zebra finch vocal organ. BMC Biol. 2013 Jan 8;11(1):1.
  • Thompson CK*, Meitzen J*, Replogle K, Drnevich J, Lent KL, Wissman AM, Farin F, Bammler TK, Beyer RP, Clayton DF, Perkel DJ, Brenowitz EA. 2012. Seasonal changes in patterns of gene expression in avian song control brain regions. PLoS One 7(4):e35119.
  • Thompson CK, Brenowitz EA. 2010. Neuroprotective effects of testosterone in a naturally-occurring model of neurodegeneration in the adult avian song control system. J Comp Neurol. 2010 Dec 1;518(23):4760-70.
  • Thompson CK, Brenowitz EA. 2009. Neurogenesis in an Adult Avian Song Nucleus Is Reduced by Decreasing Caspase-Mediated Apoptosis. J. Neurosci. 29:4586-4591.
  • Meitzen J, Thompson CK, Choi H, Perkel DJ, Brenowitz EA. 2009. Time course of changes in Gambel's white-crowned sparrow song behavior following transitions in breeding condition. Horm Behav. 55:217-227.
  • Thompson CK, Brenowitz EA. 2008. Caspase inhibitor infusion protects an avian song control circuit from seasonal-like neurodegeneration. J Neurosci 28:7130-6.
  • Thompson CK, Bentley G, Brenowitz EA. 2007. Rapid seasonal-like regression of the adult avian song control system. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 104:15520-5.
  • Thompson CK, Brenowitz EA. 2005. Seasonal change in neuron size and spacing but not neuronal recruitment in a basal ganglia nucleus in the avian song control system. J Comp Neurol 481:276-83.
  • Cunningham M, Krasnow S, Gevers E, Chen P, Thompson CK, Robinson I, Smith M, Clifton D, Steiner R. 2004. Regulation of galanin-like peptide gene expression by pituitary hormones and their downstream targets. J Neuroendocrinol 16:10-8.
  • Sperry T, Thompson CK, Wingfield J. 2003. Effects of acute treatment with 8-OH-DPAT and fluoxetine on aggressive behaviour in male song sparrows (Melospiza melodia morphna). J Neuroendocrinol 15:150-60.
  • Shapira M, Thompson CK, Soreq H, Robinson G. 2001. Changes in neuronal acetylcholinesterase gene expression and division of labor in honey bee colonies. J Mol Neurosci 17:1-12.
  • Ben-Shahar Y, Thompson CK, Hartz SM, Smith BH, Robinson GE. 2000. Differences in performance on a reversal learning test and division of labor in honey bee colonies. Animal Cognition 3:119–125.

For a full list of Dr. Thompson's publications, visit PubMed


  • Thompson CK. 2013. The acute sensitivity of tadpole metamorphosis to changes in thyroid hormone signaling. Molecular Reproduction and Development 80: 785
  • Scharff C and Thompson CK. 2013. A birds-eye view of FoxP2. Contribution to “Birdsong, Speech and Language: Converging mechanisms” MIT Press.
  • Thompson CK. 2011. Cell death and the song control system: A model for how sex steroid hormones regulate naturally-occurring neurodegeneration. Development, Growth & Differentiation 53:213-224.
  • Meitzen J*, Thompson CK*. 2008. Seasonal-like growth and regression of the avian song control system: neural and behavioral plasticity in adult male Gambel's white-crowned sparrows. Gen Comp Endocrinol. 157:259–265.

*shared first author