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University of Exeter Medical School

Dr. Yanfeng Zhang

Dr. Yanfeng Zhang

Lecturer in Neuroscience

 Hatherly D2


Hatherly Building, University of Exeter, Prince of Wales Road, Exeter, EX4 4PS, UK


It is critical to learn what sensory inputs are predicting, and react fast to receive a reward and avoid punishment. I am interested in understanding the cellular mechanisms underlying this learning process.   

During my PhD study with Prof John Reynolds, I revealed that the pauses in cholinergic interneurons may define the time window for phasic dopamine to induce plasticity, and depolarisation of SPNs constrains the plasticity to the target synapses (Reynolds, ..., Zhang†, Nature Communications, 2022). I also investigated how superior colliculus may gate visual classical conditioning (Zhang et al., in revision), and how striatal cholinergic interneurons integrate top-down and bottom-up inputs in vivo.

After joining Prof Stephanie Cragg's lab as a Postdoctoral Researcher, I characterised how cortical and thalamic inputs summate in cholinergic interneurons ex vivo with optogenetic manipulations (Kosillo, Zhang et al., 2016, Cerebral Cortex). By combining in vivo observation, patch clamping recordings and a computational model, I revealed the multiphasic activity in cholinergic interneurons is driven by excitatory input through a rectifying potassium current and modulated by dopamine signal (Zhang et al., Neuron 2018). Furthermore, I revealed a new mechanism of how cholinergic interneurons regulate the excitability of striatal dopamine axon and, therefore, gate dopamine release in the striatum (Zhang et al., in revision). Another project I am working on is investigating how tonic dopamine activity may gate phasic dopamine release in health and disease. I am also interested in potential treatments for Parkinson’s disease (patent application filed).

I also collaborated with E.N.T. surgeons to map sensory input from different parts of the vestibular and auditory systems stratified across the hippocampus's different subregions (Hitier*, Zhang* et al., 2020, Hearing Research; Hitier*, Zhang* et al., 2021, Hearing Research, cover story). 


  • PhD
  • PGDipSci (distinction)
  • BSc


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Research interests

My laboratory focuses on understanding cellular mechanisms underlying learning and memory, including how information flows in neural circuits during reinforcement learning, the pre-synaptic modulation of neurotransmitter release, and how learning and memory may form at synapses. I am also interested in exploring potential new treatment avenues for neurodegenerative and other neurological disorders, such as Parkinson's disease and addiction.

Techniques we use:

  • Patch clamp
  • Ex vivo and in vivo fast-scan cyclic voltammetry (FCV) recordings
  • Calcium imaging
  • Next-generation neurotransmitter imaging
  • In vivo single-unit recordings
  • Behavioural tasks
  • Optogenetic and chemogenetic manipulations
  • Computational modelling.

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Journal articles

Reynolds JNJ, Avvisati R, Dodson PD, Fisher SD, Oswald MJ, Wickens JR, Zhang Y-F (2022). Coincidence of cholinergic pauses, dopaminergic activation and depolarisation of spiny projection neurons drives synaptic plasticity in the striatum. Nature Communications, 13(1). Abstract.
Zhang Y-F, Cragg SJ (2021). Revisiting dopamine-acetylcholine imbalance in Parkinson’s disease: Glutamate co-transmission as an exciting partner in crime. Neuron, 109(7), 1070-1071.
Hitier M, Zhang Y-F, Sato G, Besnard S, Zheng Y, Smith PF (2021). Stratification of hippocampal electrophysiological activation evoked by selective electrical stimulation of different angular and linear acceleration sensors in the rat peripheral vestibular system. Hearing Research, 403, 108173-108173.
Hitier M, Zhang Y-F, Sato G, Besnard S, Zheng Y, Smith PF (2020). The effects of selective electrical stimulation of the rat cochlea on hippocampal field potentials. Hearing Research, 395, 108023-108023.
Condon MD, Platt NJ, Zhang Y-F, Roberts BM, Clements MA, Vietti-Michelina S, Tseu M-Y, Brimblecombe KR, Threlfell S, Mann EO, et al (2019). Plasticity in striatal dopamine release is governed by release-independent depression and the dopamine transporter. Nature Communications, 10(1). Abstract.
Hitier M, Sato G, Zhang Y-F, Besnard S, Smith PF (2018). Effects of electrical stimulation of the rat vestibular labyrinth on c-Fos expression in the hippocampus. Neuroscience Letters, 677, 60-64.
Zhang Y-F, Reynolds JNJ, Cragg SJ (2018). Pauses in Cholinergic Interneuron Activity Are Driven by Excitatory Input and Delayed Rectification, with Dopamine Modulation. Neuron, 98(5), 918-925.e3.
Hitier M, Sato G, Zhang Y-F, Zheng Y, Besnard S, Smith PF (2018). Vestibular-related eye movements in the rat following selective electrical stimulation of the vestibular sensors. Journal of Comparative Physiology A, 204(9-10), 835-847.
Zhang Y-F, Cragg SJ (2017). Pauses in Striatal Cholinergic Interneurons: What is Revealed by Their Common Themes and Variations?. Frontiers in Systems Neuroscience, 11
Hitier M, Sato G, Zhang Y-F, Zheng Y, Besnard S, Smith PF, Curthoys IS (2016). Anatomy and surgical approach of rat’s vestibular sensors and nerves. Journal of Neuroscience Methods, 270, 1-8.
Kosillo P, Zhang Y-F, Threlfell S, Cragg SJ (2016). Cortical Control of Striatal Dopamine Transmission via Striatal Cholinergic Interneurons. Cerebral Cortex, 26(11), 4160-4169.

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External Engagement and Impact

Editorial responsibilities

Review editor at Frontiers in Molecular Neuroscience

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