We know today that behavior of humans and all other mammals is driven by brain activity, namely electrical activation of neurons and synaptic communication.
Nevertheless, observing and understanding the huge variety of interactions that occur among billions of these neurons by means of their synaptic connections is still an open challenge in neuroscience. Furthermore, we own a still very limited knowledge about which mechanisms lose their physiological functioning during the development and maintenance of psychological or psychiatric disorders.
The aim of our group is to conduct scientific research addressing these still unresolved questions and, at the same time, to provide valuable instruments for disseminating this knowledge on both the academic and non-academic level.
The theoretical and methodological background of our research group lays its foundations on basic research in physiology and neuroscience on both animal models and human subjects. The experimental tools we dispose of include both classical and novel techniques for the molecular, biochemical and optical analysis of neural tissue, for the electrophysiological recording of neuronal activity, for the optogenetic stimulation of brain activity and for functional imaging performed both in vitro and in vivo. These tools provide an ideal experimental platform for the in vitro and in vivo testing on both the animal model and the human subject of new hypotheses about the physiological mechanisms that drive neuronal communication, processing of sensory information, behavior and cognition, as well as synaptic plasticity and memory.
The scientific objectives of the group are to unveil new basic mechanisms underlying human and animal neurophysiology and to drive, though the gathered experimental evidence, the development of novel therapeutic strategies for treating several psychiatric disorders and psychopathological conditions. These objectives are addressed through three main research lines:
This research line involves the use of advanced optical techniques for detecting synaptic activity which have been recently developed by BNC members (Ferro, Lamanna et al., Nature Communications, 2017) and the further enhancement of these techniques using the most recent methods for genetic engineering. These novel approaches are being applied by BNC in several experimental contexts, aiming at investigating synaptic communications at neuroanatomical circuits involved in specific behaviors and cognitive functions (learning and memory, decision making, gratification, sleep-wake cycle, etc), including their plastic modifications.
The subject of this research project is investigating, by means of different experimental approaches, the neuroanatomical, physiological, molecular, biochemical, behavioral and cognitive modifications that underlie several pathological phenotypes that can be induced in the animal model. The animal models used in these studies are selected based on their relevance in the context of psychopathologies and psychiatric disorders (anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, addiction, tics, obsessive-compulsive disorder) and include: acute and chronic stress, anhedonia, fear conditioning and extinction, aggressiveness, social isolation, deprivation.
In this research project, potential new strategies are evaluated for the rescue of the pathological phenotype induced in the animal model with the aim of mimicking specific symptomatology related to human psychiatric and psychological disorders (see research line 2). This action aimed at recovering the physiological phenotype will be performed through several approaches, including some recently developed neurostimulation and neuromodulation methods targeting specific neural circuits. These approaches include: electrical and chemical modifications; optogenetic stimulation; pharmacological treatment; behavioral strategies (social interaction, enriched environment, gratification). Once selected the more effective rescue approaches, the final aim is to translate the results obtained on the human patient. This will be performed using neurostimulation techniques (TMS, DBS, neurofeedback) with new treatment protocols that will be designed and validated in collaboration with external clinical centers.