Flavio Donato

Development of neuronal circuits and cognitive functions.

The aim of the lab is to dissect the mechanisms by which neuronal circuits are built during development, and how these processes support the emergence of cognitive functions during an animal´s life. For this, we study how the infant brain learns to navigate the world and to create memories of everyday events, two cognitive functions that rely on the activation of neurons located in the entorhinal cortex and hippocampus of the mammalian brain. These neurons work together to create an internal representation of space and time in the brain, also known as “cognitive map”, which animals use to navigate physical and conceptual spaces.

The cognitive map is not in its adult-like shape in infants, but it refines during development together with the animal’s ability to perform more and more complex cognitive tasks. To study how these processes unfold in the developing brain, we take a longitudinal approach to visualize, record, and manipulate the activity of large populations of neurons across multiple stages of an animal’s life, while animals navigate the world and learn from experience. For this, we use mouse genetics, behavioural analysis, in-vivo calcium imaging, viral tracing, computational modelling, and optogenetics to identify stereotypical patterns of neuronal activity associated with behaviour in the developing and adult brain.
Through these means, our ambition is to understand how neurons in the entorhinal cortex and hippocampus interact with each other to produce the cognitive map, how infant animals use the map to learn to navigate the world and learn from experience, and how developmental plasticity mechanisms might be harnessed to revert degenerations of the cognitive map that happened during ageing and disease.

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Flavio Donato