The University is awarded two new ERC Advanced Grants.

The University of Florence at the top of European research of excellence. The European Research Council has awarded the University of Florence with two new ERC Advanced Grants assigned to the GenPercept project by David Burr of the Department of Neuroscience, Psychology, Drug Research and Child Health and Scope by Pierangelo Geppetti of the Department of Health Sciences. The grants have a value of 2.5 million euros each and will have a five-year duration. The number of Unifi grants obtained in the framework of the European Horizon 2020 research and innovation program totals now 9.

The perception of reality, understood as a combination of expectations, a priori models of the world and sensory experience is at the heart of GenPercept. The project coordinated by David Burr strongly questions the idea that the perception of the outside world is a faithful and instantaneous copy of what is seen by sight and hearing. According to the Florentine scientist, our past perceptive experience conditions our way of seeing and feeling things. “Perceiving — explains Burr — means to actively create an internal model of the surrounding sensory world and verify this model with the instant information transmitted by our senses that continuously update our ideas of the world.” GenPercept aims to study this dynamic and to reveal the neural mechanisms that regulate this very complex process. The approach is multidisciplinary and combines extremely innovative behavioral, computational and neuro-imaging techniques.

“In 2009 — says Burr — I got a first grant from the European Research Council, when the grants were called Ideas. To develop the project I recruited some young people. Six of them consolidated their careers in Tuscan and international universities and laboratories, winning ERC and FIRB (Basic Research Investment Fund) funds. With this new project I hope to repeat the same success story in training young researchers “. GenPercept has a clinical relevance as well: “In the study — adds Burr — we plan to involve also autistic subjects. We know that they use less internal models and are more dependent on sensory evidence. This part of the research will allow us to better understand the dynamics that govern perception in this population and to better validate our hypothesis. It is a translational implication of research.”

Pierangelo Geppetti’s Scope project aims to identify the cellular and molecular mechanisms that underlie the chronicization of pain to discover new therapeutic targets aimed at an effective and safe cure. The study seeks to investigate those processes that — whether it is inflammatory, neuropathic or oncological pain — prolong the pain until it becomes a disease of its own.

These mechanisms, already identified by Geppetti, reside in TRPA1, one of the receptors involved in the transmission of pain from a single nerve to the central nervous system. In particular, this same receptor, present inside the Schwann cells, which form the protective layer of the peripheral nerves, stimulated by the oxidative stress produced by the inflammatory cells, in turn recalls other inflammatory cells, thus amplifying the painful signal it reaches the brain. “Over the next five years — explains Geppetti — we plan to verify whether the model developed for understanding the mechanisms underlying neuropathic sciatic nerve pain is applicable for pain caused by other pathologies. The preliminary results are encouraging and would confirm the key role of Schwann cells that are not a simple protective glove but play a very important physiopathological function.” The next step will be to develop pharmacological interventions that block the process leading to chronic pain.

The University of Florence is involved as a partner in another research project selected from the winners of an ERC Advanced Grant. This is Rometrans, coordinated by the University of Newscastle, in collaboration with the British School of Rome and the Institute for Technologies Applied to Cultural Heritage of the National Research Council (CNR), which aims to analyze the evolution of the eastern Celio, a south-eastern district of Rome, between the imperial age and the early Middle Ages, through 3D surveying and the virtual reconstruction of the present buildings and contextualizing them from a geographical and chronological point of view. “The area — explains Paolo Liverani of the Department of History, Archeology, Geography, Fine and Performing Arts — is a link between the city and the countryside, between classical Rome and the early Christian one, between the needs of civil and military defense.” The Florentine contribution to the project takes advantage of Liverani’s knowledge of the topography and history of this territory and of the skills for the reconstruction of the geomorphological evolution of geographer Margherita Azzari.

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University of Florence

University of Florence

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The University of Florence is an important and influential centre for research and higher training in Italy