Investigating the neural mechanisms of social cognition


Social cognition is the ability to detect, store, and evaluate social information and it is critical for how we think, feel, and interact with others. Impairment of social cognition is a defining feature of many neuropsychiatric diseases including autism, schizophrenia, and mood disorders. The major goal of our research is to understand the neural mechanisms underlying social cognitive processes such as social perception, social memory, and social decision-making. We are particularly interested in how molecular and neuromodulatory actions shape synaptic properties and circuit function. To achieve this, we combine a variety of approaches across molecular, synaptic, and behavioral scales which include single-cell transcriptomics, ex vivo electrophysiology, in vivo photometric recordings, and optogenetics.

Xiaoting Wu, PhD

Assistant Professor, Neuroscience



Wu X, Morishita W, Beier KT, Heifets B, Malenka RC. 5-HT modulation of a medial septal circuit tunes social memory stability. Nature. 2021 Oct 6. doi: 10.1038/s41586-021-03956-8. Link

Walsh JJ, Christoffel DJ, Wu X, Pomrenze MB, Malenka RC. Dissecting neural mechanisms of prosocial behaviors. Curr Opin Neurobiol. 2020 Dec 2;68:9-14. Link

Wu X, Morishita WK, Riley AM, Hale WD, Südhof TC, Malenka RC. Neuroligin-1 Signaling Controls LTP and NMDA Receptors by Distinct Molecular Pathways. Neuron. 2019 May 8;102(3):621-635. Link

Pavel M, Imarisio S, Menzies FM, Jimenez-Sanchez M, Siddiqi FH, Wu X, Renna M, O’Kane CJ, Crowther DC, Rubinsztein DC. CCT complex restricts neuropathogenic protein aggregation via autophagy. Nat Commun. 2016 Dec 8;7:13821. Link

Wu X, Fleming A, Ricketts T, Pavel M, Virgin H, Menzies FM, Rubinsztein DC. Autophagy regulates Notch degradation and modulates stem cell development and neurogenesis. Nat Commun. 2016 Feb 3;7:10533. Link

Wu X, Won H, Rubinsztein DC. Autophagy and mammalian development. Biochem Soc Trans. 2013 Dec;41(6):1489-94. Link

Projects (Research Areas)

Neural circuits and dynamics mediating social cognition

For an animal to thrive in its social environment it must recognize other animals and conspecifics and differentiate between friend and foe or kin and stranger. Moreover, it is critical for an animal to remember relevant social interactions to adapt appropriately to its social environment. How are these different social signals recognized, consolidated, and acted upon?

Our previous work (Wu et al., Nature, 2021) demonstrated that distinct molecular and circuit mechanisms control social versus non-social memory and contribute to the pathophysiology of autism. Building on those findings, our future research will address how synaptic plasticity and neural circuits orchestrate the formation of social representation and drive social decision-making.

Pathophysiology of social cognitive deficits

Social abnormalities in neuropsychiatric disorders such as autism are caused by a variety of factors. While social motivational changes are prominent contributors, they do not fully explain deficiencies in social interactions, facial recognition, and emotional processing. Research has only just begun to understand how synaptic and circuit changes give rise to social cognitive deficits. Our research seeks to understand how genetic mutation/deletion of synaptic molecules (Wu et al., Neuron, 2019) result in the pathophysiology of social cognitive defects and to develop approaches to reverse them.

Funding & Awards


5K99MH122697-02 (Wu: PI), NIMH
Title: The role of the septum in social memory

Alkermes Pathways Award


2023 – NARSAD Young Investigator Award

2022 – Friedman Brain Institute Scholar Award

2021 – Trainee Professional Development Award, Society for Neuroscience

2017 – Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft Postdoctoral Research Fellowship

2012 – Friedrich-Ebert Stiftung PhD Fellowship 

Meet the Team

Ella Lubbers
PhD Student
Julia Zorab
Associate Researcher 
Anna Schinasi
Associate Researcher
Huanhuan Li, PhD
Postdoctoral Fellow

Join the Team

Xiaoting Wu, PhD
Assistant Professor, Neuroscience

We are actively recruiting postdocs and graduate students. If interested, please send a brief description of your research experience and goals, a CV, and contact information for at least 2 references to xiaoting.wu@mssm.edu. Graduate students interested in rotation projects are encouraged to get in touch via email.