Zach Mainen studied psychology and philosophy at Yale University and received his PhD in Neuroscience from the University of California, San Diego in 1995. From 1995-2007 he worked at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, New York, first as a postdoctoral fellow and then as Assistant and Associate Professor.
In 2007 Mainen moved to Lisbon, Portugal to help establish the Champalimaud Neuroscience Programme (CNP). He is currently a Senior Investigator and Director of the Programme. He is also the founding director International Neuroscience Doctoral Programme (INDP).
In 2009 Mainen received the Senior Investigator award from the European Research Council (ERC), receiving 2.3M euros to fund work to elucidate the biological role of the neurotransmitter serotonin. In 2010 he was elected a member of the European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO) in recognition for his work in the life sciences. Mainen's research interests concern how brains use sensory information to guide decisions and to acquire and evaluate knowledge. His laboratory's research combines quantitative descriptions of behavior with physiological analysis of neural systems and circuits and theoretical models of brain function.