IMT School researcher awarded ERC grant to study mechanisms that regulate sleep and dreams

A researcher at the IMT School for Advanced Studies Lucca, Giulio Bernardi, has been awarded a European Research Council (ERC) Starting grant, a competitive source of financing attributed to young researchers who pursue innovative research ideas. Bernardi has been assigned about 1,5 million euros to organize its own multidisciplinary team for studying the deep mechanisms that regulate sleep and dreaming, and eventually use the acquired knowledge to find new strategies for treating sleep-related disorders.

The project, entitled "TweakDreams", will make use of new techniques and methods of analysis to investigate the functioning of the brain during sleep, and to understand the relationship among regional variations in brain activity and subjective experience at night. While the mechanisms and the purpose of sleep have been studied for decades, many aspects of it remain a mystery. Traditionally, sleep and wakefulness have been described as two mutually exclusive states characterized by differences in consciousness and responsiveness to the environment. However, the more recent view is that sleep is a phenomenon with a local regulation in the brain: "islands" of sleep- and wake-like activity can often coexist across distinct brain areas, either during behavioral wakefulness or sleep.

According to this view, this mosaic of activity is also directly related to the presence and content of mental activity during sleep. In other words, dreams would be the result of "local awakenings" in the otherwise sleeping brain. What is still to understand, though, is whether these local awakenings and their related mental activity have a specific function, and what that function is. This is especially important as a growing body of evidence indicates that many sleep disorders, including for instance particular forms of insomnia, may depend on the loss of the fine balance between wake- and sleep-like activity within particular regions of the brain during sleep.

In the "TweakDreams" project, Bernardi proposes to use non-invasive methods based on an adaptation and optimization of previously developed sensory stimulation protocols to interfere with the brain waves produced during sleep, and thus modulate sleep intensity in a local, region-specific manner. Such an approach will allow investigating the relationship between local changes in brain activity and corresponding mental activity during sleep, potentially revealing new ways to treat insomnia and other sleep disorders. More in general, the project will open new avenues for investigating sleep-related functions in humans, including those related to learning, memory and emotional regulation.

Giulio Bernardi is a researcher in neuroscience, and an Assistant Professor at the IMT School for Advanced Studies Lucca, one of the six higher education institutions in Italy, where he is a member of Molecular Mind Lab (MoMiLab). Bernardi earned his PhD in Neuroscience and endocrine-metabolic science at the University of Pisa. Between 2012 and 2017 he conducted his research first at the Center for Sleep and Consciousness, University of Wisconsin, USA, and then at the Lausanne University Hospital, Switzerland.

The ERC Starting grants are awarded top young researchers who pursue innovative research projects. In 2020, the resources attributed through the grants amounts to 677 millions euros, distributed among 436 young scientists based in 25 European countries.

This year, the success rate for the competition in the three domains covered by the grant - life sciences, physical sciences and engineering, and social sciences and humanities - has been about 13 percent.

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