We are EMBL: Diego Benusiglio on decoding ‘surprise signals’ and the ETPOD programme

Diego Benusiglio talks about his peculiar postdoctoral programme and his passion for science and Swing music

To survive in the natural world, animals need to identify sudden threats and quickly adapt their behaviour. Any mismatch between expected and perceived sensory stimuli is considered either a potential threat or an opportunity to catch prey. Within the brain, these unexpected events elicit a ‘surprise signal’ that is used to update our mental model of the sensory world and adjust future behavioural responses.

Diego Benusiglio is a postdoc in the Asari Group at EMBL Rome. His project involves investigating how these surprise signals are generated and how they change neural activity to help the brain acquire and store new information. We spoke to him about the ETPOD programme, his experience at EMBL, and the most exciting aspects of his work.

What is special about your postdoctoral programme?

The EMBL-IIT postdoctoral programme (ETPOD) leverages the expertise of EMBL Rome, EMBL-EBI, and the Italian Institute of Technology (IIT) in the fields of neuroscience, epigenetics, genomics, and nanotechnology. Specifically, my project is based on the collaboration between my host group at EMBL (the Asari Group) and the partner research team based at IIT (led by Gian Domenico Iannetti). The Iannetti Group is investigating the brain responses to sudden and unexpected sensory stimuli in healthy human subjects using EEG recording and neuroimaging combined with behavioural analyses. This work is closely related to my project which is carried out in the mouse model. Joining the efforts between the two research groups has provided complementary information which can only be obtained by closely relating animal and human studies.

I can also have weekly exchanges and discussions with both research groups, design tandem experiments, access the scientific infrastructures of both institutes, and interpret together the results obtained in the mouse model and in humans. The comparison of neural activity in different mammalian species will lead to a better understanding of neural encoding mechanisms of surprising sensory events in the neocortex.

What is your favourite part of your job?

The most exciting part of my job is observing in real time how neurons in the brain turn on and off in a very specific pattern. It feels like opening a window into the volatile world of thoughts, feelings, and dreams and realising that they are made of the very same matter and obey the same physical rules as the rest of the world. Therefore, they can be studied and understood in a rigorous way.

What’s the best part of working at EMBL?

The best part of working at EMBL is the interaction with colleagues. People at EMBL are genuinely motivated to pursue knowledge and advance our understanding of science, and it feels like everyone is doing the work of their life. Getting to know colleagues from different countries, cultures, and backgrounds is very stimulating too. It is very hard to get bored while working at EMBL!

At what age did you decide you wanted to work in science, and what triggered that?

As far back as I can remember, I have always wanted to become a scientist.

Since I was a kid, I have always been curious about how machines work, how species evolve, how dinosaurs disappeared, how stars are born, and how cells make up an organism. Surely, school, television and magazines, and also participating in science dissemination events played a big role in capturing my interest and nurturing my passion for science. 

What is one thing about you that most folks don’t know?

I am passionate about Swing music, a style of Jazz music which originated in America between the 1920s and the 1940s and was played by big bands with 10 or more musicians. It was initially mostly played by Afro-Americans, but it soon became nationally and globally popular. Swing music has been a unifying force that overcame ethnic boundaries and is still very popular.

Regarding EMBL’s 50 Anniversary this year: what aspect of EMBL culture do you think EMBL should be proud of at this point in its organisational history?

I think EMBL should be proud of providing a competitive life science research hub and at the same time a stimulating working environment, where scientists can benefit from top-quality training and access state-of-the-art infrastructures.

Tags: asari, neuroscience, rome, we are embl


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