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Meet: Ottavio Pompeiano

Principal Investigator
Effects of Microgravity on Gene Expression in the Brain

photo of Dr. pompeiano and his associates

Dr. Pompeiano and Associates (left to right)
Dr. Claudia Centini, Dr. Paola D'Ascanio, Dr. Ottavio Pompeiano,
Dr. Maria Pompeiano, and Dr. Pieranna Arrighi
Drs. Giulio Tononi and Chiara Cirelli, who belong to the team, are not in the picture

Who I am:

I obtained the M.D. degree in 1950 at the University of Bologna, Italy. Soon afterwards I started my training period in neurophysiology at the Institute of Physiology of Pisa University, where I worked for four years with a fellowship of the Italian National Research Council in close collaboration with Prof. G. Moruzzi. I spent the following year at the Anatomical Institute of the Univerity of Oslo, Norway, a fellowship of the Rockefeller Foundation, working in collaboration with Prof. A. Brodal and J. Jansen and a successive period at the Nobel Institute of Neurophysiology, Karolinska Institute of Stockholm, Sweden, working with the Nobel Prize Prof. R. Granit. I was appointed as acting Professor of Physiology at the Medical School of the Catholic University, Rome, in 1962-63, and I became full Professor of Physiology at the Medical School of Pisa University in 1967.

photo of department of physiology and biochemiistry, University of Pisa My Work

The training periods indicated above allowed me to work on the neurophysiological and neurochemical mechanisms responsible for sleep and wakefulness. We also investigated the modalities by which the labyrinthine signals originating from gravity (macular) receptors are integrated in precerebellar, cerebellar and vestibular structures, and we studied the role that the vestibular nuclei and the cerebellum exert in the labyrinthine control of posture and movement as well as the neurochemical mechanisms involved in the modulation and adaptation of vestibular reflexes. Since changes in the sleep-waking cycle as well as in vestibular function occur during and after space flight, we thought that our scientific experience could be used for the development of a research project within the frame of the Neurolab mission.

My Career Journey and Influences

The scientists with whom I worked during my training period have exerted a prominent role in the development of my scientific experience. In particular, working in collaboration with Prof. G. Moruzzi I learned the classical approach to the neurophysiological investigation, but mainly to ask questions to nature and obtain responses without being influenced by current bias and theories. On the other hand, Prof. A. Brodal and J. Jansen showed me the importance of performing experimental anatomical studies in order to understand the physiological problems under investigation. Finally, working with Prof. Granit I learned the dynamic approach to investigate how afferent signals induced by natural stimulation of sensory receptors are integrated in several brain structures.

Role for Neurolab

With our project, we will study the "Effects of microgravity on gene expression in the brain." In particular, the main aim of the proposed studies will be to visualize brain changes in the expression of immediate-early genes (IEGs) and other molecular markers of neuronal activity and plasticity which may result from exposure to space flight conditions. IEGs are rapidly induced by several extracellular stimuli and they can act as "third messengers" to regulate the expression of target genes that may be involved in the physiological response and adaptation to space flight. We will document normal and abnormal neuronal activity in several brain systems challenged by space flight, e.g., those related to stress and those responsible for the somatic and neurovegetative symptoms of space motion syndrome. But the two specific goals of our project will be to investigate the molecular changes underlying adaptation of the vestibular responses to microgravity.

Our research project has been included in the "Adult Neuronal Plasticity Team," in which five different groups of researchers will use different approaches to investigate the plastic changes which may affect the macular receptors, vestibular nuclei, cerebellar cortex, thalamic and hypothalamic nuclei as well as the hippocampus, under different flight conditions. These integrated studies will help us to understand the morphological, biochemical and functional changes which are responsible for alterations of vestibular functions, sleep-waking cycle, circadian rhythms of body temperature, heart rate, feeding, drinking as well as for self-orientation with respect to three-dimensional spatial relationships. This team approach requires great efforts, since the same animals can be used for different experimental approaches.

Benefit of the Study

The results of our inflight experiments could be used in order to identify the molecular changes which may affect specific brain structures involved in the regulation of the sleep-waking cycle as well as in phenomena related to vestibular adaptation and compensation.

We are trying to understand how the mammalian brain reorganizes under conditions of microgravity, thus allowing the animal to adapt to its new environment. We would like also to verify whether systems provided of neurochemical specificity, some of which could be involved in balance disorders, changes in circadian rhythms, and mental disorders undergo plastic changes under conditions of microgravity.


I went into science not to develop a career but as a need for the search of truth. The small amount of time that I had free from research during the past decades was spent reading books of several classics. My daughter, Maria, is a part of my team pictured above.

Being almost 70 years old, I am ready to follow the advice of Voltaire whose last words in Candide are: "il faut cultiver son jardin" ("he must cultivate his garden"). This gives health and a sensible occupation.


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