Meet: Ottavio Pompeiano
Effects of Microgravity on Gene Expression in the Brain
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.
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
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.