Professor Michela Chiappalone is a neuroscientist at the Department of Neuroscience and Brain Technologies, Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia (IIT). She is also the coordinator of the BRAIN BOW FET Open project aiming to connect in vitro neuronal assemblies to an artificial system for restoring the lost neuronal functionality. In this interview she tells us about her experience, as a researcher involved in a FET project.

"My dream was and still is the possibility to develop new technology to improve the quality of life of people affected by invalidating neuronal disabilities."

Could you tell us a little about you?

"I received my master degree in ‘Electronic Engineering’ in 1999 from University of Genova (Italy) and immediately after I was enrolled in a PhD program in ‘Electronic Engineering and Computer Science’ with a fellowship funded by the Italian National Research Council. As a PhD student, I spent one year at Northwestern University (Chicago, USA), where I had the opportunity to work with the first ever developed neuro-robotic closed-loop system: a lamprey brain stem bi-directionally connected with a small mobile robot. Upon my PhD graduation, I made my first Post-Doc at University of Genova, and in 2007, I started my second Post Doc at the newly funded Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia (IIT). Since 2013, I have been coordinating the ‘Neural Interfaces and Network Electrophysiology’ lab at the dept. of Neuroscience and Brain Technologies (NBT) of IIT. Besides my scientific activity, I am a wife and mother of two kids, aged 9 and 5, who fill up my days when I am not in the lab."

 

Could you tell us about your field of research and the implications of it?

"My research interests are in the field of Neurotechnology. This is a recently defined interdisciplinary research topic with relevance to basic research in neuroscience and to applications, such as neuroengineering and neurorobotics. In my view, neurotechnology should provide tools for two main aspects:

  • Investigating how neuronal systems represent and store information, in order to develop innovative bi-directional neural interfaces.
  • And designing hybrid or neurally-inspired artificial computational systems.

The potential applications of this research are various, such as to substitute missing or damaged parts of the brain with artificial devices, improve cognitive and memory capabilities, exploit the properties of neurons to build intelligent machines."

 

What inspired you to get involved in this field?

"Since I was a child, I’ve always been fascinated by science: I knew I wanted to become a scientist, possibly in the biomedical field. The possibility to develop technological tools to solve medical problems has been the primary reason that moved me to take up an engineering faculty at the University. In 1999, the meeting with my first mentor, Prof. Massimo Grattarola, who prematurely passed away in 2002, inspired me and opened up my mind towards the fascinating world of neuroscience."

 

Then, what is your current focus on and main findings so far?

"My primary focus is to interface brains and machines, by using a common ‘language’ that can be understood by both parts. To address this ambitious goal, my lab has been developing a closed-loop architecture between a culture of neurons and a small robot, where the signal circulates in a continuous and bi-directional interaction; this allows to investigate neural computation and brain dynamics, and their relation to neurological disorders. We have developed simple ‘in vitro’ biological models of the brain to examine these topics. Our motivating principle is that the experimental accessibility of in vitro systems can allow us to derive general principles of neural coding – principles that will extend as well to brain function in vivo. Moreover, in vitro systems can also allow us to peek into the underlying neural circuitry, identifying and understanding aberrations in disease models. In the context of this research line, I have recently been awarded a FET Young Explorers grant (‘BRAIN BOW’). The idea is to develop a hardware chip able to replace one module of a network which is not functioning. We are validating this approach in cultured neuronal networks. The outcome of this project could have important implications for treating disabling brain diseases such as stroke, traumatic brain injury and brain tumors."

 

Could you tell us about your experience working in a FET project? How did it affect your research and your career?

"My FET project Brain Bow aims at replacing a damaged part of a neuronal system by using a neuromorphic device, which mimics the behavior of a network of neurons. In the future, if the brain is damaged, i.e. because of a lesion or a stroke, we will be able to restore the lost connections by using an implanted chip which acts as the damaged part. This chip could potentially treat the effects of the disability, with a very high societal and economic impact in the next coming years. Moreover, our results could really improve strength and competitiveness of Europe in the Neurotechnology field. The possibility to further extend the potentiality and the usability of the developed chip have opened up new avenues in my research, which is now slowly moving towards novel rehabilitation therapies for brain repair. For the above reasons, winning and being coordinator of this FET project has been undoubtedly the most important result of my career so far. The high risk research foreseen in the project stimulates me everyday to do my best and to learn new things towards realizing something useful. This project gave me also high visibility at the European level, allowing me to get acquainted with the FET community and with top scientists in the field. But one of the most important consequences of all this is, undoubtedly, the very good and friendly atmosphere of my consortium, for which I need to thank all my precious partners: Paolo Bonifazi, Paolo Massobrio and Timotheé Levi."

 

Some concluding remarks?

"Another important goal in my career is to promote the participation of women (especially mothers) to the scientific community. My FET project is a clear example that also mothers, like myself, can conduct high-risk/high-gain research at an international level, without renouncing to the care of their young children. In Italy, in particular, it is very difficult to combine job and family life due to the lack of infrastructures and good ‘models’. I think that, together with other EU female scientists, we can start doing something really important to change things for the present and future generations."

 

Follow Michela's updates @BrainBowProject

Project
Linking biological and artificial neuronal assemblies to restore lost brain functions: towards the design of innovative bi-directional neuroprostheses
Project Acronym
BRAINBOW