Neuroscience

Neurobiology of learning

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Head of Unit

Antonio Malgaroli

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How is our brain modified by experience, sensory deprivation, drugs and disease? It is unquestionable that behind any behavior there are molecular and functional changes in synapses and synaptic circuits. Antonio Malgaroli was the first scientist to demonstrate satisfactorily that the maintenance of the synaptic learning process known as Long-term Potentiation or LTP, discovered by Tim Bliss and Thierry Lomo in 1973, has a presynaptic component. Despite in the last 20 years we have been spectators of an incredible advancement in the elucidation of molecular machinery of synapses, the exact functional mechanisms behind synaptic communication and LTP are still largely unknown. This partial failure has indeed some solid grounds. Today brain synapses are still pproached very indirectly because they are very small (less than 1 micron), they produce small signals (a few picoamperes), they are difficult to access being located on thin and complex dendritic cables, they are heterogeneous in structure and in biochemical composition, undergoing continuous and fast complex biochemical-morphological rearrangements.

Research activity

To overcome some of these limitations, Antonio Malgaroli and his lab have dedicated a lot of efforts to develop novel tools for the investigation of synapses. His current research aims at:

  1. Defining the nature of the basic parameters of quantal transmission and how these are changed by the learning process;
  2. Enhancing and testing SynaptoZip, a novel genetically-encoded synaptic activity sensor recently developed in his lab, which is able to report the activity of individual synaptic boutons in the in vivo brain;
  3. Obtaining new in vitro models of brain circuits based on nanostructured substrates;
  4. Studying the role of dopamine in modulating synaptic plasticity in the prefrontal cortex in relation to animal behavior and mental disorders;
  5. Clinical and basic investigation of the Tourette syndrome.