Spotlight: Audrey Franceschi Biagioni uses graphene to alleviate mental health disorders
Audrey Franceschi Biagioni is investigating whether graphene flakes could help to alleviate psychological disorders related to the human fear response, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
What made you choose a career in science? How did you get started on your current research project?
After obtaining my bachelor's degree in Pharmaceutical Science, I decided to pursue a career in research because I wanted to learn more about the functionality of the brain. I am fascinated by the way chemical signals work to control our behaviour, and I am especially interested in understanding the ways in which neurochemical dysfunctions can lead to psychiatric and neurologic diseases.
My research focuses on the application of graphene oxide flakes in an animal model of post-traumatic stress disorder. I study brain circuits underlying fear and stress, and I am excited to discover how graphene and layered materials can be engineered to interact with brain networks.
Can you explain your project a bit more?
Neurotransmitters, chemical substances produced by neurons, allow brain cells to communicate with each other by acting at specific binding sites – exactly like a lock-and-key system. Only the right key (the neurotransmitter) can open and close a specific lock (the binding site). If a neurotransmitter fits into a binding site, it can modulate certain associated brain activities. In particular, graphene oxide flakes can interact with binding sites of glutamatergic neurons and decrease their activity.
More specifically, a region of the brain that coordinates fear, called the amygdala, is hyperactive under certain pathological conditions, such as in patients with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), because excitatory neurotransmitters have opened up many locks in this area of the brain. As a result, people experience intense fear, nightmares and traumatic flashbacks.
The goal of my research is to use graphene to interrupt the brain excitatory activity under these pathological conditions. In the laboratory, the PTSD-like behaviour can be provoked in rats by triggering their natural fear of cats: when rats smell cat odor, their amygdala becomes hyperactive. We hypothesized that the interaction of graphene with specific neurons in the rats' amygdalas may prevent the PTSD-related behavioral responses.
How can our society benefit from this?
Graphene oxide flakes have the potential to promote advancement in drug development due to their small size as well as their structural and functional properties. Evidence showing that graphene oxide has an effective impact on the neuronal network led to the hypothesis that appropriate graphene-based technologies could be used as alternative therapeutics for mental health disorders.
This approach would represent a significant advantage over existing therapies. However, I also believe it is necessary to keep up with fundamental studies in order to employ graphene oxide for clinical applications.
Who is your biggest role model?
My biggest role model in the academic field is the illustrious professor Alexandre P. Corrado. I admire his reasoning in generating hypotheses and the way he enlightens scientific arguments. Corrado encourages creativity with his genuine ability to inspire personal and professional growth.
What are the biggest milestones in your career?
I am most proud of the fact that I was awarded a grant with a Brazilian fellowship agency (FAPESP) in 2016 for a research project that I proposed, to work in collaboration with Prof Laura Ballerini.
After one year of working in Ballerini's group, I was delighted to join her team as a postdoctoral researcher. It was an important step in my career. Working at SISSA, gave me the opportunity to learn new techniques, meet renowned researchers and further develop my potential as a researcher.
What are your plans for the future?
I would like to advance my scientific career by improving my research skills and knowledge in the fields of neuroscience, pharmacology and biotechnology by expanding my collaborations. I want to establish a career focused on project conception and the development of scientific projects to explore novelty drugs and technologies for biomedical applications.
Why do you feel that diversity is important for the Graphene Flagship's progress?
Scientific growth and innovation are positively related to the sharing of ideas and laboratory experiences. Bringing together people from different backgrounds expands the range of knowledge and enhance the research skills of everyone involved. In my opinion, promoting diversity can be the key element to generating a wide array of ideas, improving research, and developing new products and applications of graphene.
As a member of SISSA's Committee for Wellbeing, I am engaged in developing strategic activities to integrate equality and diversity in the academic environment. Without coherent strategies to promote diversity, it is much harder to achieve true excellence in terms of technological advancement.