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Research groups

Raffaele Sarnataro

BSc, MSc, Licenza (Scuola Normale Superiore), MSc (Oxon)

Postdoctoral Research Scientist

Investigating the molecular machinery and cellular biology of sleep control

Research Summary

Sleep is vital and universal, yet very little is known about its biological function. A crucial benefit must be provided, in order to balance the enormous risks to which an animal is exposed every time it disconnects from the external world during sleep.

An internal process that generates sleep pressure is tracked by a sleep homeostat, which operates the periodic discharge of this pressure by initiating sleep. Understanding the molecular nature of sleep pressure and its regulation by the homeostat will provide important clues about the physiological variables linked to the essential function of sleep.

Sleep-control neurons innervating the dorsal fan-shaped body (dFB) of Drosophila melanogaster's brain induce sleep on demand if artificially activated. These neurons constitute the output arm of Drosophila’s sleep homeostat by switching between different electrical states which correlate with the animal’s sleep or wakefulness.

During his PhD, Raffaele has been using a comprehensive toolbox of molecular, transcriptomic, transgenic, imaging and behavioural approaches to investigate the role of dorsal fan-shaped body neurons in sleep control, and further elucidate how sleep is physically encoded in their molecular machinery and circuitry  network dynamics.

Given the universal and basic function of sleep, and the striking resemblances between dFB neurons and sleep-active cells in the ventrolateral preoptic nucleus of the mammalian hypothalamus, the main findings of this study could represent general principles conserved across the evolutionary tree.
An in-depth knowledge of the sleep control processes will inevitably bring insights into the vital function of sleep.


Raffaele studied at Scuola Normale Superiore and, in parallel, at University of Pisa, in his native Italy, obtaining a BSc in Biotechnologies, an MSc in Molecular and Cell Biology and a Diploma di Licenza in Biology. In Pisa, his research focused on light-controllable engineering of intracellular antibodies, under the supervision of Prof. Antonino Cattaneo.

After research and study experiences at Harvard Medical School and University of Cambridge, Raffaele was offered a place in the 4-year Wellcome Trust Doctoral Programme in Neuroscience, in Oxford, where he obtained an MSc in Neuroscience, and worked with Prof. Colin Akerman and Prof. Gero Miesenböck for his rotation projects. He then completed a DPhil in Miesenböck lab, at the Centre for Neural Circuits and Behaviour in the Department of Physiology, Anatomy and Genetics, secondarily supervised by Prof. Vladyslav Vyazovskiy. He is currently a Postdoctoral Research Scientist in the Miesenböck group.

In Oxford, Raffaele has been President of the Cortex Club, the neuroscience student association, a unique educational forum dealing with cutting-edge topics and significant, challenging issues in neuroscience with formats ranging from smaller, rather intense debates to large discussion sessions lead by internationally prominent speakers.

During his time in Oxford, Raffaele has received several competitive awards, including Jesus College Graduate Scholarship, gaining Oxford Scholar status (2019), Feneal UIL Napoli scholarship (2020) and the Professional Development Award by the Physiological Society (2023).

At the same time, he is associate member of the Italian Center for Excellence and Transdisciplinary Studies, and long-term collaborator of Italian National Association of Natural Sciences Teachers, contributing to fostering science at multiple levels.