Dr. Simona Lodato has been awarded the prestigious ERC Starting Grant for research in neuroscience

The European Research Council (ERC), one of the most important public funding agencies for scientific research in Europe, has awarded a Starting Grant to the project “IMPACT” led by Dr. Simona Lodato    Head of the Laboratory of Neurodevelopment at Humanitas and professor of Histology and Embryology at Humanitas University.

This is an important achievement since less than 10% of the projects submitted by thousands of researchers from all over Europe and from third countries manage to achieve the coveted goal.

With the IMPACT project, Dr. Lodato and her team aim to shed light on a mysterious mechanism of the brain: the spontaneous activity present even when we are not conscious and already during the fetal phase, and that would play a key role in the development of the cerebral cortex.

“It is a great honor for me to receive this Grant for a project that comes from a great personal passion and that I hope will bring important results, says Dr. Simona Lodato. The recognition also goes to my colleagues in Humanitas University who collaborate in IMPACT and with whom I share every day the great challenge of discovering the secrets of the cerebral cortex”.

The IMPACT project: searching for “pacemaker” neurons

We know that communication between neurons occurs through synapses and that, even if not “activated” by an external stimulus, such as sound or light, they have the ability to produce spontaneous activity, communicating to each other and transferring information. For years this type of brain activity has been considered a kind of “background noise”, but now in studies conducted on adult brain it is proving to have its own specific importance.

At the basis of Dr. Lodato’s study there is a question: when does this spontaneous communication activity between neurons begin and how important is it? In particular, the goal is to shed light on the spontaneous activity of the developing brain, i.e. the type of electrical communication between neurons that is established in the womb, even before the beginning of sensory activity, and that would play a crucial role in the development of the cerebral cortex.

First of all, the “IMPACT” project aims at identifying the “Pacemaker” neurons, i.e. those that activate the fetus’ neuronal circuits before it perceives the sensory stimuli of the external world, and to evaluate how the spontaneous activity of the brain affects the development of the cerebral cortex, especially in case of an alteration of the “pre-sensory” condition.

It has been demonstrated that there are many different types of neurons, each with specific capacities and functions: Dr. Lodato and her team are, therefore, looking for “Pacemaker” neurons within a large number of neuronal types thanks to the modern technologies available today for the molecular and functional characterization of individual brain cells.

The results of the next few years will serve not only to better understand the great complexity of the brain and the different populations of cells that compose it, but also to find new strategies to preserve and encourage proper development of neuronal circuits that control our behaviours.

The Italian position in the ranking and the new female records in Life Sciences

In 2021, Italy was awarded 28 Starting Grants, thus positioning in 5th place in the ranking of nations (with an improvement of 5 positions compared to 2020). In the Life Sciences area, only 2 Italian projects were funded.


Humanitas is a highly specialized Hospital, Research and Teaching Center. Built around centers for the prevention and treatment of cancer, cardiovascular, neurological and orthopedic disease – together with an Ophthalmic Center and a Fertility Center – Humanitas also operates a highly specialised Emergency Department.