Eugenia Chiappe, an argentinian neuroscientist, principal investigator of the Sensorimotor Integration Lab at the Champalimaud Centre for the Unknown, in Lisbon, Portugal, is one of the five scientists in Portugal who have been awarded this year a Starting Grant from the European Research Council (ERC).
These grants are destined to promote the work of top scientists at the beginning of their career and have a duration of five years. In this case, total funding should be of almost 1.7 million euros. Out of 3,085 submissions, 406 projects from 23 countries were selected for funding this year, the ERC announced on its website.
Eugenia Chiappe wants to understand how the fruit fly's brain (and the human brain) builds a mental representation of the locomotive movements of its body.
Her team has already started working on this problem, and in 2016 discovered "visual neurons that not only process visual signals related to the fly's walking, but also non-visual signals related to that movement", she explains.
But there is still a lot left to understand. For instance, how are these two types of signals integrated by those neurons to, so-to-speak, allow the fly's brain to know where the fly is going? The newly attributed European grant will be crucial to pursue this line of research.
"We are first going to identify the neurons that send the non-visual signals to the visual neurons", adds Eugenia Chiappe. "Then, we want to understand how this neural circuit integrates the two types of signals to generate a reliable representation of what the animal is doing with its body. And thirdly, we want to understand how this internal brain representation influences the animal's locomotion control."
For this, the team will use several techniques, such as recordings of neural activity, optogenetics (which relies on light to turn neurons on and off), detailed measurements of the fly's behavior and neural models (artificial neural networks that simulate the behavior of real neurons).
"The ERC funding will allow us to acquire new equipment in order to combine all these technologies. Moreover, it will also enable us to expand our team", says Eugenia Chiappe.
About Eugenia Chiappe
Eugenia Chiappe was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, where she studied Biology at the University of Buenos Aires and Circus Arts at the Asociación Argentina de Actores. For her graduate studies she moved to The Rockefeller University in New York City as a Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) predoctoral fellow. Her research in peripheral audition introduced her to the biophysical specializations of sensory organs. After taking a course in computational neuroscience at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, MA, she became increasingly interested in the computational principles occurring during more integrative brain functions. She then joined Vivek Jayaraman's lab at HHMI's Janelia Farm Research Campus, where she collaboratively developed a new technique to record neural activity in behaving flies to study visual-motor transformations in Drosophila melanogaster.