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Raffaella Tonini Write a Message

Senior Researcher TT (TT2)


via Morego 30
+39 010 71781 728


Raffaella Tonini graduated in Biological Science at the Department of General Physiology and Biochemistry, University of Milano in 1996 (110/110 with honors). In 2000 she received her PhD in Physiological Science at the same institution, with a research study on the functional modulation of ion channels by signaling molecules during neuronal differentiation. After one year of post doctorate at the University of Milano, she moved to the Dept. of Human Physiology and Pharmacology at the University La Sapienza in Rome, where she worked on the functional-structural relationship of neuronal ligand-gated ion channels. In 2003 she obtained a senior post doc position in the Dept. of Cellular and Developmental Biology, University La Sapienza, where she started an independent project which was investigating the role of specific signal trasduction pathways in the modulation of neuronal excitability and synaptic plasticity after exposure to drugs of abuse. During this period she visited the Dept. of Physiology, UCL, UK to master measurement of calcium dynamics in neurons with dual electrophysiology and two-photon microscopy. In 2006 she was appointed at the same institution as a senior post doc where she had the opportunity to consolidate her neurophysiological background and to continue her experimental investigation on drug-induced neuroadaptations. Currently, she has a group-leader position at the Italian Institute of Technology (IIT).


Neurophysiology and neuropathology of experience-dependent plasticity

My project aims to understand how changes in cellular processes produced by specific signal transduction pathways influences long-term synaptic plasticity and mediates changes in behaviour. I’m primarily focused on the physiological and functional roles of specific receptors for drugs of abuse and their natural ligands. The in-vivo exposure to drugs of abuse and their behavioural effects are used as a model for investigating the role of long-term synaptic plasticity in the experience-dependent alterations in neuronal circuits, both under physiological and pathological conditions. The involvement of specific signal transduction pathways is assessed using transgenic animal models lacking intracellular molecular components or expressing cell-type-specific fluorescent proteins for visualization of distinct neuronal populations. Experiments are performed by an integrative approach combining behavioral analysis with neurophysiological techniques (electrophysiological and two-photon imaging recordings) using both an ex-vivo and in-vivo approach as well as with and in-vitro and in-vivo pharmacology.

Two main lines of research will be pursued:

Synaptic correlates of behavioural plasticity:  role of the endocannabinoid-mediated signalling

The overall goal is to elucidate the synaptic mechanisms underlying the different phases of learning of goal-directed actions, their flexible use and how they become habitual. This is of particular interest given the proposed dysregulation of habitual control over behaviour in pathological conditions, including Parkinson’s disease and drug addiction. I’m mainly focused on the role of specific neuromodulatory pathways, such as the endocannabinoid-mediated signalling, in regulating neural circuits to produce experience-dependent behavioural changes. Endocannabinoids are important neuromodulators of both short-term and long-term synaptic plasticity in several brain areas where they play a role in a variety of processes, such as motor behaviour, cognition, learning and memory. To this purpose, mice are behaviourally trained to learn goal-direct actions (instrumental learning/habit formation) and the flexible use of actions (attentional set shifting task). This is followed by electrophysiological and imaging recordings to analyze changes in synaptic transmission and plasticity in brain areas relevant for motor control, drug habits and reward (e.g. dorsal striatum, NAc and prefrontal cortex).

Regulation of synaptic plasticity by extracellular signals

Neurotransmitter and neuromodulatory receptors (e.g. dopamine-, endocannabinoid-, opioid- and cholinergic receptors) modulate a complex cascade of intracellular signals which play a critical role in behavioural and synaptic plasticity. Agonists and antagonists of these receptors are used in-vitro and in-vivo to directly evaluate their coordinated role on synaptic plasticity under physiological conditions in neuronal circuits relevant for learning process (hippocampus, dorsal striatum). Experiments are also performed in transgenic animals lacking specific signal transduction proteins, like components of the cAMP/PKA and ERK pathways or expressing cell-type-specific fluorescent proteins for visualization of distinct neuronal populations. Recent evidence highlights the development of forms of pathological synaptic plasticity in some psychiatric and neurological disorders. By means of the experimental approach mentioned above, I analyse the functional role of neuromodulator-dependent signalling in animal models of Alzheimer and Parkinson’s diseases. This will help to understand not only the neurophysiological mechanisms of some brain diseases but also to identify potential novel molecular targets in a therapeutic perspective.

Selected Publications


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I numeri di IIT

L’Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia (IIT) è una fondazione di diritto privato - cfr. determinazione Corte dei Conti 23/2015 “IIT è una fondazione da inquadrare fra gli organismi di diritto pubblico con la scelta di un modello di organizzazione di diritto privato per rispondere all’esigenza di assicurare procedure più snelle nella selezione non solo nell’ambito nazionale dei collaboratori, scienziati e ricercatori ”.

IIT è sotto la vigilanza del Ministero dell'Istruzione, dell'Università e della Ricerca e del Ministero dell'Economia e delle Finanze ed è stato istituito con la Legge 326/2003. La Fondazione ha l'obiettivo di promuovere l'eccellenza nella ricerca di base e in quella applicata e di favorire lo sviluppo del sistema economico nazionale. La costruzione dei laboratori iniziata nel 2006 si è conclusa nel 2009.

Lo staff complessivo di IIT conta circa 1440 persone. L’area scientifica è rappresentata da circa l’85% del personale. Il 45% dei ricercatori proviene dall’estero: di questi, il 29% è costituito da stranieri provenienti da oltre 50 Paesi e il 16% da italiani rientrati. Oggi il personale scientifico è composto da circa 60 principal investigators, circa 110 ricercatori e tecnologi di staff, circa 350 post doc, circa 500 studenti di dottorato e borsisti, circa 130 tecnici. Oltre 330 posti su 1400 creati su fondi esterni. Età media 34 anni. 41% donne / 59 % uomini.

Nel 2015 IIT ha ricevuto finanziamenti pubblici per circa 96 milioni di euro (80% del budget), conseguendo fondi esterni per 22 milioni di euro (20% budget) provenienti da 18 progetti europei17 finanziamenti da istituzioni nazionali e internazionali, circa 60 progetti industriali

La produzione di IIT ad oggi vanta circa 6990 pubblicazioni, oltre 130 finanziamenti Europei e 11 ERC, più di 350 domande di brevetto attive, oltre 12 start up costituite e altrettante in fase di lancio. Dal 2009 l’attività scientifica è stata ulteriormente rafforzata con la creazione di dieci centri di ricerca nel territorio nazionale (a Torino, Milano, Trento, Parma, Roma, Pisa, Napoli, Lecce, Ferrara) e internazionale (MIT ed Harvard negli USA) che, unitamente al Laboratorio Centrale di Genova, sviluppano i programmi di ricerca del piano scientifico 2015-2017.

IIT: the numbers

Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia (IIT) is a public research institute that adopts the organizational model of a private law foundation. IIT is overseen by Ministero dell'Istruzione, dell'Università e della Ricerca and Ministero dell'Economia e delle Finanze (the Italian Ministries of Education, Economy and Finance).  The Institute was set up according to Italian law 326/2003 with the objective of promoting excellence in basic and applied research andfostering Italy’s economic development. Construction of the Laboratories started in 2006 and finished in 2009.

IIT has an overall staff of about 1,440 people. The scientific staff covers about 85% of the total. Out of 45% of researchers coming from abroad 29% are foreigners coming from more than 50 countries and 16% are returned Italians. The scientific staff currently consists of approximately 60 Principal Investigators110 researchers and technologists350 post-docs and 500 PhD students and grant holders and 130 technicians. External funding has allowed the creation of more than 330 positions . The average age is 34 and the gender balance proportion  is 41% female against 59% male.

In 2015 IIT received 96 million euros in public funding (accounting for 80% of its budget) and obtained 22 million euros in external funding (accounting for 20% of its budget). External funding comes from 18 European Projects, other 17 national and international competitive projects and approximately 60 industrial projects.

So far IIT accounts for: about 6990 publications, more than 130 European grants and 11 ERC grants, more than 350 patents or patent applications12 up start-ups and as many  which are about to be launched. The Institute’s scientific activity has been further strengthened since 2009 with the establishment of 11 research nodes throughout Italy (Torino, Milano, Trento, Parma, Roma, Pisa, Napoli, Lecce, Ferrara) and abroad (MIT and Harvard University, USA), which, along with the Genoa-based Central Lab, implement the research programs included in the 2015-2017 Strategic Plan.