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Raffaella Tonini

Senior Researcher Tenured - Principal Investigator

Research Line

Neuromodulation of Cortical and Subcortical Circuits


IIT Central Research Labs Genova


via Morego 30
+39 010 2896 728
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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 is Senior Researcher at the Italian Institute of Technology (IIT).


A major challenge in the field of neuroscience is to understand how the brain learns to choose adaptively between different behavioral options in order to reach specific goals, and how this process is influenced by motivation and environmental cues. To address these questions, we investigate the key molecular and cellular mechanisms trough which neuromodulatory pathways regulate synaptic functions to shape the balance between cognitive flexibility (goal-directed behavior) and behavioral stability (habitual behavior). Elucidating how these adaptive behaviors are formed and operated at defined neuronal circuits is instrumental to understand how decision making is modified across life span, or disrupted in brain diseases, such as obsessive-compulsive disorders, drug addiction, post-traumatic stress disorders, and Parkinson’s disease. The ultimate goal is to develop our projects at the interface of basic research and biomedical application. The results of our studies will help elucidating common neurobiological substrates underlying the comorbidity between some neurological and neuropsychiatric disorders, seeking to identify novel therapeutic strategies.

To achieve these goals, we develop our research program along three main axes:

  1. Addressing how neuromodulatory afferent pathways act in concert with neuromodulatory signals generated within the circuit to enable cell-type- and input-specific changes in bidirectional synaptic plasticity.
  2. Understanding how these changes in synaptic plasticity produce behavioral outputs.
  3. Establishing how dysfunctional synaptic neuromodulation is a cellular substrate of maladaptive behavior in neurological and neuropsychiatric conditions.

The lab applies an integrative experimental approach, combining neurophysiological and imaging techniques with state of the art viral-based strategies to deconstruct and manipulate neuronal circuits, alongside behavioral analysis. We have been investigating the neuromodulatory mechanisms that regulate synaptic connectivity between the cortex and subcortical regions (striatum and locus coeruleus). These brain regions play a major role in reward-based learning and action control, and may be modified in several neurological and psychiatric pathologies.


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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.