Sara Stampacchia and Christina Grimm selected as the two first Neuro X Postdoctoral Fellows
A new program at Neuro X
Sara Stampacchia and Christina Grimm were selected as the two first Neuro X Postdoctoral Fellows. This new program, funded by the Schools of Engineering, Life Sciences and Computer and Communication Sciences, and by the Neuro X Institute, seeks to support the next generation of leaders developing innovative research at the crossroads of neuroscience, neuroengineering and neurocomputation, and contemplating clinical translation. The program intends to promote young researchers with bold ideas in neurotechnology and provide a ramp towards academic independence.
Fighting against hallucinations in Parkinson disease
Sara Stampacchia proposes to bring to the patients a technology developed at LNCO in collaboration with MIPLAB to allow Parkinson patients suffering from presence hallucinations (PHs) to mitigate their occurrence. Although Parkinson’s Disease is mostly known as a movement disorder, it is also often accompanied by hallucinations that have a dramatic impact on the affected patients, their caregivers, and families. Nevertheless, the existing pharmacological treatments for hallucinations have limited efficiency and severe side effects, including worsening of the motor symptoms.
Building on LNCO’s development of a robotics-based approach that effectively induces presence hallucinations (PHs), combined with a real-time fMRI neurofeedback (NF) strategy, Sara will translate the preliminary results obtained in healthy participants for self-regulation of hallucination-related brain activity, to PD patients. It indeed remains to be validated whether fMRI-NF is effective when used as a non-invasive anti-psychotic therapy for PD patients with hallucinations: it is hypothesized that training the patients to downregulate the activity of previously identified brain networks associated with hallucinations will reduce the proneness to robotic PH-induced hallucinations and decrease the frequency of spontaneous PH in daily life. This is of dramatic importance for patients, as hallucinations in Parkinson Disease have been linked to poorer quality of life and major negative clinical outcomes, including cognitive impairment and dementia, depression, early home placement, and a higher risk of mortality.
Regenerative medicine for Parkinson disease
Christina Grimm, from Zerbi Lab, will also target Parkinson Disease, but in a very different way: she indeed proposes to use neuron replacement therapy, made possible by the major progress of iPSC research. With the ability to generate and transplant highly pure mesencephalic dopaminergic neurons from hPSCs (grafted mesDA), mesDA-neuronal loss and its associated symptoms in PD may be significantly alleviated, making it the first disease-modifying treatment of its kind. Although several Phase I clinical trials are currently ongoing around the world, various challenges are still to be overcome before it can be fully translated to clinical use. In particular, Christina will address tow fundamental challenges: she will first provide a comprehensive and longitudinal investigation of the local functional integration of human pluripotent stem cell (hPSC)-derived midbrain dopaminergic (mesDA) neurons in an in vivo setting. This approach will provide a thorough understanding of the fate of these cells following implantation.
She will then develop a strategy to facilitate the complete integration of these cells into the functional circuitry of the host tissue, allowing the evaluation of their potential for neuro-restoration and assessment of their impact on system-level plasticity.
To this end, Christina will work in collaboration with the newly-installed laboratory of Prof Fides Zenk and the Bertarelli Foundation Gene Therapy Platform to evaluate an hPSC replacement strategy through optogenetics and fMRI in a rat model. Together, Christina’s project will boost the field of regenerative medicine, offering a new way to quantify the functional integration of mesDA cells in vivo, longitudinally, and minimally-invasively.
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