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Raffaele Sarnataro

BSc, MSc, MSc (Oxon)

Wellcome Trust Doctoral Student in Neuroscience

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.

Differently from the circadian clock, the sleep homeostat responds to an internal process that generates sleep pressure and 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.

Drosophila melanogaster is a valuable animal model for studying the machinery underpinning sleep and its homeostatic regulation. Sleep-inducing neurons innervating the dorsal fan-shaped body (dFB) of the central complex induce sleep on demand if artificially activated. These neurons constitute the output arm of Drosophila’s sleep homeostat by switching between electrically active (ON) and inactive (OFF) states which correlate with the animal’s asleep or awake state. Dopamine rapidly induces in dFB the exposure on cell membrane of a potassium leak channel termed Sandman, provoking the switch to the OFF state. The circuitry downstream the dFB neurons has also been identified.

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.

During my DPhil, I will use a comprehensive toolbox of molecular, omic, transgenic, imaging and behavioural approaches to investigate the role of dorsal fan-shaped body neurons in sleep-wake homeostasis in Drosophila, and further elucidate how sleep is physically encoded.

An in-depth knowledge of the sleep control processes will inevitably bring insights into the vital function of sleep.


I studied at Scuola Normale Superiore and, in parallel, at University of Pisa, in my native Italy, obtaining a BSc in Biotechnologies, an MSc in Molecular and Cell Biology and a Diploma in Biology, completing my studies in 2017. In Pisa, my research focused on intracellular antibodies and their engineering in order to create optogenetic tools, under the supervision of Prof. Antonino Cattaneo.

After international experiences at Harvard Medical School and University of Cambridge, I was offered a place in the 4-year Wellcome Trust Doctoral Programme in Neuroscience, in Oxford, where I am happy to have joined the brilliant local neuroscientists’ community. I obtained an MSc in Neuroscience as part of the programme, during which I worked with Prof. Colin Akerman and Prof. Gero Miesenböck for my rotation projects. I am currently a DPhil student 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.

In Oxford, I have 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.

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