What happens during the very first period of formation of the cerebral cortex in the fetus can provide answers on the onset of diseases in adulthood. We talked about it with Dr. Simona Lodato, Head of the Laboratory of Neurodevelopment in Humanitas and researcher at Humanitas University, a member of a European network of neuroscientists.
Fetal neurons and neurological diseases in adults
Neurons, which constitute the basic elements (building blocks) of the cerebral cortex of an adult individual, are almost exclusively generated during fetal life. There is a link between everything that can happen during the early stages of the development of the cerebral cortex, and the brain in general, and the possible onset of neurological diseases not only characteristic of childhood but also of adulthood. The nervous system still has several aspects to understand and the research continues, to discover mechanisms and links that bring answers to questions and tools for prevention and treatment of diseases.
Unbalanced circuits at the base of some diseases
Among the studies carried out by Dr. Simona Lodato, there are in particular excitatory and inhibitory neurons that are formed during fetal development and that, in the human cerebral cortex, are no longer replaced during adult life. The aim is to understand how what happens in the developmental phase of the embryo and in the very first period of post-natal life can influence adult life. “The so-called connectomy – explained the doctor, recently selected as a member of the FENS-Kavli Network of Excellence (FKNE) – is one of the fields of future exploration. We try to understand how neurons define themselves and how they establish connections between themselves; once the brain components are mapped, it is essential to understand how they connect and how they choose their functional partners”. “An imbalance in these circuits – he added – represents the cellular substrate of some diseases such as epilepsy, schizophrenia and autism. We are also working to understand what can be done to identify these diseases early, in the hope of identifying biomarkers that will guide us in the prevention and implementation of early therapeutic strategies of many childhood diseases and beyond. “Biomarkers – concluded Lodato – are a reality in other fields of biomedicine, but are less available with regard to disorders affecting the brain, a complex organ and still in active exploration, in whose understanding and definition play a key role factors such as plasticity and interpersonal variability.
Network’ studies at European level: FKNE member status
Dr. Lodato’s research activity has been recognized at European level, with her entry into the FENS-Kavli Network of Excellence (FKNE), a network of 50 neuroscientists from most European countries. “The activities in which we are involved”, says Dr. Lodato, “are based on multiple objectives: to promote scientific exchange within and outside the Network; to work in basic and applied research fields in the field of neuroscience; to disseminate correct scientific information in the broad sense, but with particular attention to the development of research in the field of neuroscience; to participate in national and European decision-making tables and contribute to the drafting of guidelines on key issues for research and its implementation in various European countries, such as the drafting of new international funding programmes for multidisciplinary research and the definition of eligibility criteria for applicants to allow the competitive participation of young researchers. To this end, each member of the Network is responsible for establishing relations with the institutional figures of their country, playing a role similar to that of an expert scientific ‘consultant’ as regards the dissemination of issues related to neuroscience, the promotion of training programs for young people and exchange initiatives between different European countries.