Oct 25, 2022

Professor Maurizio De Pittà’s Lab Pursuing New Frontiers of Neurobiology

Photo of Dr. Maurizio De Pitta and members of his lab
Dr. Maurizio De Pittà and his interdisciplinary team

Krembil Brain Institute researcher and Department of Physiology faculty member, Professor Maurizio De Pittà has developed the first computer model predicting the role of cortical glial cells in cognition in collaboration with a team at Duke University.

As noted in the University Health Network’s press release, De Pittà’s paper presents the first theory of the role glia play in cognitive processing, in the brain. 

"The type of glial cells that we study – known as astrocytes – can modify the activity of our brain circuits and influence the way we behave," says Dr. De Pittà.

The study looked at the role of astrocytes in working memory, which is the ability to store information for ongoing tasks, such as following the storyline of a movie or counting to 10.

"We know that astrocytes release specialized chemical signals and we have shown that this signalling could mediate different readouts of working memory," says Dr. De Pittà. "Revealing that chemical interactions between neurons and astrocytes could be at the core of working memory, also tells us what could go wrong when we have working memory deficits, which are often warning signs of major brain disorders."

He adds, "If we want to truly understand dysfunction in working memory, we need to consider the interaction between glial cells and neurons."

Physiology Provides Interdisciplinary Opportunities

Graphic depiction of the brain as described in the article text.
Image created by student Anais Lupu

When we spoke to Dr. De Pittà over Zoom, he pointed out that it is the cutting edge, interdisciplinary nature of the Department of Physiology that has made this work possible. “We are doing fundamental neurobiology using computational approaches. If you want to do computational neuroscience at the University of Toronto, I would argue that the first place to look is the Department of Physiology,” he said. 

He is also drawing on the complementary talents of his lab member Anais Lupu, a student in UTM’s Biomedical Communication program, to bring that computational approach to life visually. The image shared here depicts astrocytes (glia) in gold, neurons in blue, and their interactions – the “central processing units” of the brain –  are shown as glowing orange points. This image gives us a taste of the type of “digital twin” or avatar of the brain’s neuron-glia circuits De Pittà’s research team eventually wants to create.

As De Pittà told UHN, such a “digital twin” could help to uncover markers of neuron-glial interactions and improve the diagnosis and treatment of various brain diseases, such as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and epilepsy.

Read the full study, entitled "Multiple forms of working memory emerge from synapse–astrocyte interactions in a neuron-glia network model," in the prestigious journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).