2017 Winner Flavio Donato, Ph.D. Kavli Institute Norwegian University of Science and Technology
Flavio Donato received his master's degree from the University of Rome, "Sapienza", before moving to Basel for his doctorate degree. Under Professor Pico Caroni's mentoring, he studied how neural circuit plasticity is regulated, with particular emphasis on understanding how experience reshapes brain microcircuits to regulate further learning. He then moved to Trondheim to work with Professors Edvard and May-Britt Moser at the Kavli Institute for Systems Neuroscience. There, he developed new tools to genetically access, manipulate and perform in vivo calcium imaging in developmentally-defined subpopulations of neurons. He is currently applying these technologies to study how internally generated network dynamics emerge during develop-ment to shape connectivity and computation, and how they support the periodic firing of neurons representing space in the adult brain.
Stellate cells drive maturation of the entorhinal-hippocampal circuit.
During development, neurons located in different areas of the brain need to communicate with each other through synaptic activity in order to establish proper connectivity. Flavio Donato, under the mentorship of Professors Edvard and May-Britt Moser, showed that a specific population of neurons located deep within the brain provides the initial activity-dependent signal to kick off the sequential maturation of the network that provides us with a sense of where we are. The previously unknown existence and identity of this "driver", the entorhinal stellate cells, might have profound implications: not only do these cells seem to be essential for the emergence of the most abstract spatial computation known to date, the hexagonally periodic firing of grid cells, but they are also preferentially targeted by the initial pathological processes of Alzheimer's disease. By studying the impact that these drivers exert on the assembly and function of neural circuits, Flavio Donato hopes to understand how the brain is able to abstract from reality to produce cognition, and how to harness the inherent plasticity of which the brain is capable during development to correct pathological conditions.
For Dr. Donato’s full essay, see Science online at sciencemag.org.