Sleep is a mysterious activity. All animals that have been tested so far, from the simplest invertebrates to the highest mammals, have shown to possess – and to require – the fundamental characteristics of sleep, independently of the size or the complexity of their nervous systems. In all animals, sleep is a vital necessity, as chronic sleep deprivation leads to a still unexplained death.
Most animals sleep for a considerable fraction of their life and also the molecular basis of sleep regulation seem to be strongly conserved as most species respond in the same way to many hypnotic drugs or wake-stimulants. This remarkable conservation across evolution suggests that the core function of sleep has to be sought at the basic cell biological level of neuronal function, namely that sleep is an intrinsic requirement of any neuronal network and, possibly, every neuron (or even cell?). Yet, so far, most of the efforts in investigating the function of sleep have been focused on the electrophysiological analysis of the sleeping brain in a very descriptive fashion. We know a great deal about the electrical correlates of sleep and wakefulness but this knowledge could not, by itself, shed any light on the function of sleep.
Our goal is to tackle the problem from a different perspective, using a combination of genetics, molecular biology and bioinformatics.
What are the genes and the anatomical connections that regulate sleep? What happens in a single neuron when asleep? What are the molecular connections between sleep and learning and memory? Over the last century, Drosophila has proved to be the favourite animal model for studying the genetics of relatively complex neurobiological problems: for instance, many of the molecules involved in learning and memory have been identified in flies; the entire genetics of circadian regulation was discovered and characterised in Drosophila. It is reasonable and safe to predict that flies can contribute to the unsolved mystery of sleep as much as they did in other puzzling fields.
Current projects involve the role of two conserved families of genes in the regulation of sleep; the functional link between sleep and learning, with a particular focus on local learning; the ontogeny of sleep in Drosophila; the epigenetics regulation of sleep.
We are also interested in developing new technological approaches to study sleep. We wrote and maintain a very popoluar software used to monitor and analyse sleep in invertebrates and we are regularly working on this front (see lab github). To study not just sleep but behaviour in flies we developed Ethoscopes, a hardware suite with unique capabilities. We are also exploring novel approaches to study and quantify sleep in humans and other species.
Working in the lab.
We are always looking for enthusiastic and skilled Biology, Biochemistry or Bioengineering undergraduate students willing to carry their MRes rotation research in my lab. Enquiries from prospective PhD, BSc, MRes, Erasmus or simply visiting students from abroad are also welcome. If you have any interest please feel free to drop an email, after having read this. Formally open positions are advertised on the lab webpage.
Research in the lab is currently funded by Imperial College London, BBSRC, Edmond J. Safra Foundation, Marie Curie, The Gas Safety Trust. We are also funded through philantropic donations: if you want to know more about this and you are interested in contributing, please do not hesitate to get in touch. Previously, we were also funded by Royal Society (2011), EPSRC (2013), EMBO (2016).