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FMI


FMI


FMI


FMI


FMI

November 29, 2013

Meet Flavio Donato

Flavio Donato is fascinated with the study of learning and memory, because "we could not be whom we are if we didn’t learn from our experience." He has recently finished his PhD thesis in Pico Caroni’s group on the neuronal networks in the hippocampus that regulate learning in the adult, and receives today the Faculty Prize of the Faculty of Science of the University of Basel. His results on adult learning mechanisms came as a surprise because plasticity in the brain was thought to be reduced in the adult. They will hopefully provide new entry points to intervene when the ability to learn or remember is comprised.

Q: After having completed your PhD thesis successfully, what do you take with you? In what ways do you think has the time at the FMI shaped your career?
Being at the FMI has been a tremendous experience. The possibility to interact with such a variety of brilliant scientists whose discoveries shape the field of neuroscience can be very challenging, but it has been one of the main stimuli pushing me through my PhD in Basel, both from a scientific and a personal point of view.
One of the strength of the neuroscience program is, in my opinion, the multiplicity of approaches aimed at understanding the structure and function of neural circuits, and how these support behaviorally relevant functions: you get exposed to a comprehensive overview spanning the whole field, and that shapes the approach to your future research. Going after the fundamental questions with an extreme care of the details is probably the main lesson I will carry with me through my future career. The mentoring I have received has influenced my prospective on science in an enormous way, and will always have an impact on my reasoning process.

Q: You have been studying the processes in the hippocampus that control behavioral learning. What is your motivation to study these processes?
John Locke held that memories are the foundation of personal identity, in the fact that they make you the same person that you were in the past, shape your present perception and influence your future decisions. Therefore learning assumes a central position in a person’s life: we could not be whom we are if we didn’t learn from our experience. The question to me is who wouldn’t want to study that!
During my PhD, I have focused my attention on the mechanisms that allow the brain to be plastic as a function of, and a substrate for, learning. We all have the anecdotal experience that brain plasticity is enhanced during childhood, when the amount of skills to be learned is gargantuan. The discovery that the same network component regulating “critical periods” during early life is also the substrate for an analogous regulation during learning in the adult, boiling down to a specific configuration implemented by the network of Parvalbumin-expressing interneurons to regulate plasticity and learning itself, has been absolutely stunning. In addition, understanding how microcircuits respond to experience might hopefully provide an entry point to intervene when this ability is compromised in pathologies like schizophrenia, autism or Alzheimer’s disease.

Q: In the past years, novel technologies have revolutionized neurobiology. How have you experienced these changes and what hopes for your research do you associate with these new technologies?
Looking back to the past ten years, neuroscience has witnessed an explosive advancement in the technologies for the study and manipulation of neural circuits in vivo in behaving animals. Living part of this phase at the FMI, which has been central for the development and application of many of these techniques, has provided a unique sense of how the field is developing. We are gaining more and more access to study learning and memory in real time, by imaging and recording from neurons while an animal is performing a task. We can manipulate selected neuron populations to test their importance in behavior. We can trace the developmental origin and reconstruct the functional connectivity of neural networks supporting the most sophisticated cognitive functions. And yet, the complexity of the questions and the exquisitely human nature of the phenomena involved require a continuous effort driving technology forward. We are far from done, although there are fewer and fewer limits to the type of question that can be tackled in neuroscience today; this brings a lot of excitement to see what the future holds for our field.

Q: Science is a tough business of novel ideas and cutting-edge skills. You have decided to pursue a postdoctoral fellowship. How do you keep fit for novel ideas and stay abreast of technological developments?
In my opinion the development, but most of all the large-scale availability of cutting-edge technology will highlight more and more how central ideas are in science. At the end of the day, it will all focus on the question you will try to answer, and how creatively you will combine the skills you have in your hands to approach them. Trying to piece together the details in a bigger picture is becoming an essential demand for scientists and might be the key to survive in such a competitive environment. And let imagination run: it really can get you anywhere.

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