Samantha Butler, PhD

Samantha Butler, Ph.D. 

Professor and Eleanor I. Leslie Chair in Pioneering Brain Research, Neurobiology


Samantha Butler, Ph.D., studies how the nervous system — the complex network made up of the brain, spinal cord and nerves that run through the body — connects and grows during fetal development. The extraordinarily diverse functions of the nervous system include voluntary and involuntary movement, memory and decision-making and processing information from the five senses. Butler’s work primarily focuses on understanding the mechanisms that establish neural circuitry in the spinal cord to regenerate the nerves that let us sense the environment. These vital functions, such as pain and touch, can be lost due to injuries that sever nerves or cause paralysis as well as diseases that damage nerves such as diabetic neuropathy. Although progress has been made in developing treatments to improve motor function for patients with nerve damage, the same cannot be said for treatments to reestablish sensory abilities, such as those that enable an individual to feel comforted by a reassuring squeeze from a loved one or flinch away from a hot surface to avoid being burned. By pursuing greater understanding of how the nervous system develops, Butler hopes to identify methods that use stem cells or drugs to replicate normal development and regenerate damaged or diseased nerves and nerve connections.

Butler’s work overturned a long-standing paradigm about how axons — thread-like projections that connect cells in the nervous system — grow during embryonic development. Contrary to long-held understanding, Butler discovered that neural progenitors, tissue-specific stem cells that can create any cell type in the nervous system, organize axon growth by producing a pathway of a protein called netrin1 that leads them through their local environment. This insight into axon growth could enable scientists to use netrin1 to regenerate axons in patients with serious nerve damage, such as veterans with combat injuries. Without intervention, these patients face lengthy and painful recovery times, and can lose both movement and sensation in the injured limb due to the gradual loss of nerve cells after injury. Butler hopes to identify ways in which netrin1 can be used to stimulate the rapid regrowth of peripheral nerves, resulting in faster recovery times for patients with nerve damage.

Butler also seeks to identify the ways in which stem cells can be used to repair damaged or abnormal sensory neurons, which are responsible for sense of touch and the ability to feel pleasure and pain. Sensory neurons can be damaged by physical trauma or injury, chemotherapy, autism, aging or other diseases. By identifying how stem cells become spinal sensory neurons during fetal development, Butler has been able to reproduce this process and define methods for making different classes of sensory spinal neurons from stem cells. In her most recent work, Butler has found that these stem cell-derived neurons mirror their naturally occurring counterparts in the embryo to a remarkable extent — setting the stage to use these lab-created sensory neurons for effective cellular therapies that restore sensory function to injured patients.

Butler earned a doctorate in molecular biology from Princeton University and completed a postdoctoral fellowship at Columbia University. 


Honors & Affiliations


  • Ablon Scholar, 2019
  • Eleanor I. Leslie Term Chair in Pioneering Brain Research, 2018
  • Rose Hills Foundation Scholar, 2017
  • Stein/Oppenheimer Endowment Award, Gerald Oppenheimer Foundation, 2014
  • Spinal Cord Research Foundation/Paralyzed Veterans of America Fellowship, 2000 - 2002        


  • Member, Neurodifferentiation, Plasticity, Regeneration and Rhythmicity study section, National Institutes of Health, 2022 - 2027
  • Reviewer, NIH/NICHD Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Research Centers, 2020
  • Reviewer, Neurodevelopment, Synaptic Plasticity, and Neurodegeneration fellowship study section, National Institutes of Health, 2016 - 2019
  • Reviewer, National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke Research Program Award initiative, National Institutes of Health, 2016
  • Editorial Board, Developmental Biology, 2014
  • Editorial Board, Physiological Genomics, 2014
  • Society for Neuroscience
  • International Society for Stem Cell Research
  • Society for Developmental Biology 


Butler’s work is funded by the National Institutes of Health, the United States Department of Defense, the Merkin Foundation and the UCLA Broad Stem Cell Research Center, including support from The Rose Hills Foundation Innovator Grant and the Wendy Ablon Trust.


Regenerating the peripheral nervous system
Samantha Butler studies the regenerative abilities of nerve cells in the peripheral nervous system, which extends from the spinal cord out to the limbs and controls movement as well as the ability to sense touch, pain and temperature. In this video, she discusses how major injuries to the peripheral nervous system heal very slowly and how her research seeks to accelerate the regeneration of nerve cells to reduce patient recovery times.