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Leonardo H. Tonelli

Leonardo H. Tonelli Ph.D.

Academic Title: Associate Professor
Primary Appointment: Psychiatry
Location: MSTF, 934C
Phone: (410) 706-2325
Fax: (410) 706-0571

Personal History:

Leonardo H Tonelli is an Assistant Professor and the head of the Laboratory of Behavioral Neuroimmunology (LBNI) at the Mood and Anxiety Program (MAP), Department of Psychiatry, University of Maryland School of Medicine. He received his PhD degree in Neurobiology from University of Cordoba, Argentina. In 1998 He started his fellowship at the National Institutes of Mental Health (NIMH) where he received training in Neuroendocrinology and Neuroimmunology, first at the Section of Pharmacology and then in the Section of Neuroendocrinology, Immunology and Behavior. He Joined the Department of Psychiatry in 2005 and established an independent research program. He has received several awards including the Intramural NIMH Outstanding Performance award and the Department of Psychiatry McKee Jarboe award for Mental Health Research. His research has been recognized across fields and presented to diverse audiences including the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, the European Congress on Suicide and Suicidal Behavior and the National Institutes of Health.

Research Interests:

My research program focuses on the effects of inflammatory processes on brain function and behavior and their implications for mental health and stress related disorders. Research performed at the LBNI employs a variety of strategies from basic animal studies, postmortem human studies and collaborative efforts on clinical studies. The framework of the program is multidisciplinary crossing boundaries from neuroscience to immunology and mental health with an emphasis on pre-clinical translational studies.
Animal studies: Based on the high incidence of stress-related mental dysfunction including anxiety and depressive disorders found in people suffering from chronic inflammatory conditions of the airways, these studies are geared at addressing potential mechanisms of that association. We have established a rodent animal model which involves immune challenge via the intranasal route and behavioral evaluations of anxiety and depression. These studies mimic inflammatory processes of the airways including bacterial infections, allergic rhinitis and asthma with the objective to study behavioral responses in relation with brain inflammatory processes. The results of these studies were published in Neuropsychoparmachology 2008 and Brain Behavior and Immunity 2009.
Postmortem studies: Based on the phenomena that peripheral inflammation may be "reflected" into the brain as "molecular inflammation" expressed as increases in cytokine levels, we compared relative amount of mRNA for inflammatory cytokines (allergic and innate) in the brain of victims of suicide with respect to controls. We reported for the first time constitutive expression of several mRNA species in the frontal cortex of the human brain and their increases in victims of suicide. These results were published in Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica 2008).

Clinical studies: Collaborative efforts of the LBNI with members of the MAP were aimed at evaluating the peripheral inflammatory characteristics of people suffering from mood disorders. Based on the marked seasonal oscillation in the incidence of unipolar and bipolar depressive disorders, it was hypothesized that these seasonal changes were related with seasonal inflammatory processes of the airways. These studies resulted in several publications including Journal of Affective Disorders, 2007, International Journal of Child Health and Human Development 2008 and Scientific World Journal 2008.

Lab Techniques and Equipment:


Most of our behavioral analysis systems are based on the digital video softwares developed by Cleversys Inc ( We were the first laboratory to validate the Forced Swim Scan in rats.

The following behavioral tests have been implemented in our laboratory:

ANXIETY: Open Field Test, Elevated Plus Maze Test, Light-Dark Box test, Social Interaction Test DEPRESSIVE-LIKE BEHAVIORS: Forced Swin Test, Tail Suspension Test and Consumption of Sweet Solutions

AGGRESSION: Resident-Intruder Test

STRESS RESPONSIVENESS: Acoustic Startle Test, Restraint Stress


Cloning and sequencing of mRNA's splice variants. Real-time RT-PCR using SYBR green and the My iQ instrument from Bio Rad. Radioactive in situ hybridization histochemistry using riborpobes. Western blots and immunohistochemistry.

Microscopy and Image Analysis

Film autoradiographic densitometry, Confocal microscopy.

Animal Models of Inflammatory Diseases

INTRANASAL IMMUNE CHALLENGE: Bacterial Lipopolysaccharides (LPS) (Innate immunity, TLR IV) Sensitization and Challenge with Ovoalbunin (OVA) and pollen (TH2 driven) Unmethylated CpG DNA sequences and Poly I:C. (Innate immunity)


Tonelli LH, Katz M, Kovacsics CE, Gould TD, Joppy B, Hoshino A, Hoffman G, Komarow H, Postolache TT (2009) Allergic rhinitis induces anxiety-like behavior and altered social interaction in rodents. Brain Behavior and Immunity (6):784-93.

Holmes A, Postolache TT, Tonelli LH (2008) Intranasal immune challenge induces sex-dependent depressive-like behavior and cytokine expression in the brain. Neuropsychopharmacology 33(5):1038-48

Tonelli LH, Stiller J, Rujescu D, Giegling I, Schneider B, Maurer K, Schnabel A, Moller H-J, Chen HH, Postolache TT (2008) Elevated cytokine expression in the orbitofrontal cortex of victims of suicide. Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica 117(3):198-206

Guzman A., Tonelli LH, Roberts D., Stiller J., Jackson M.A., Soriano, J.J., Yousufi S., Rohan K.J., Komarow H., Postolache T.T. (2007) Mood worsening with high-pollen counts and seasonality: a preliminary report. Journal of Affective Disorders 101(1-3):269-74

Tonelli L.H. Postolache T.T (2005) Tumor necrosis factor alpha, interleukin-1 beta, interleukin-6 and major histocompatibility complex molecules in the normal brain and after peripheral immune challenge. Neurological Research 27(7):679-84.

Tonelli L.H., Postolache T.T., Sternberg E.M. (2005). Inflammatory genes and neural activity: Involvement of immune genes in synaptic function and behavior. Frontiers in Biosciences 1;10:675-80.

Tonelli L.H., Gunsolly C.A, Belyaskaya E., Atwood R.A., Sternberg E.M. (2004). Increased pro-thyrotropin-releasing hormone transcription in hypophysiotropic neurons of Lewis rats. Journal of Neuroimmunology 153(1-2):143-9.

Tonelli L.H., Maeda S., Rapp K.L., Sternberg E.M. (2003). Differential induction of interleukin-I beta mRNA in the brain parenchyma of Lewis and Fischer rats after peripheral injection of lipopolysaccharides. Journal of Neuroimmunology 140:126-33.

Tonelli L.H., Kramer P., Webster J.I., Listwak S., Wray S., Sternberg E.M. (2002). Lipoplysaccharide-induced estrogen receptors regulation in the hypothalamic paraventricular nucleus of Lewis and Fischer rats. Journal of Neuroendocrinology 14:847-852.