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:
- 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.
- Understanding how these changes in synaptic plasticity produce behavioral outputs.
- 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.