ECR Spotlight is a series of interviews with early-career authors from a selection of papers published in Journal of Experimental Biology and aims to promote not only the diversity of early-career researchers (ECRs) working in experimental biology during our centenary year, but also the huge variety of animals and physiological systems that are essential for the ‘comparative’ approach. Veronica Rivi is an author on ‘ Invertebrates as models of learning and memory: investigating neural and molecular mechanisms’, published in JEB. Veronica is a post-doctoral researcher in the lab of Joan M. C. Blom and Fabio Tascedda at the University of Modena and Reggio Emilia, Italy, investigating the conserved molecular mechanisms that promote maladaptive behaviors and psychiatric disorders, such as depression and schizophrenia. In doing so, she hopes to improve treatment options and outcomes for individuals suffering from such disabling disorders.

Veronica Rivi

Describe your scientific journey and your current research focus

I am a post-doctoral researcher and a clinical pharmacologist in training at the University of Modena and Reggio Emilia (UNIMORE) in Italy. In 2017, I completed my Master’s degree in experimental biology cum laude and with an honorable mention. Since 2017, I have been working in the neuropsychopharmacology lab of the Department of Life Science at UNIMORE under the co-supervision of Prof. Fabio Tascedda and Joan Blom. During my PhD in neuroscience, I worked at the Hotchkiss Brain Institute of the University of Calgary (Canada) in Prof. Lukowiak's lab. My research aims to characterize the pond snail Lymnaea stagnalis as a model for opening new frontiers towards translational neuroscience, the discipline that seeks to improve human health by taking advantage of knowledge collected in non-human organisms. Thus, for the past 5 years, I have worked side by side with Dr Cristina Benatti, and together we have identified and characterized numerous highly conserved molecular pathways involved in the stress response, maladaptive behaviors, and learning and memory formation in Lymnaea. To do that, we recur to a multidisciplinary approach, which combines different methods and fields, including bioinformatics, genetics, molecular biology and behavior. The ultimate and future goal of this project is to ‘translate’ data obtained in L. stagnalis with that of more complex organisms until arriving at human beings.

How would you explain the main message of your Commentary to a member of the public?

The findings presented in our Commentary show that a reductionist, but not simplistic, approach based on the use of simple model systems like invertebrates, is extremely useful to address fundamental questions in neuroscience. Although the use of a reductionist approach in the 21st century may be an arduous undertaking for some researchers, I think it is important to remember that if neurological functions are common to all animals with a complex nervous system, conserved processes must exist in the underlying molecular mechanisms that can be studied more effectively in simple invertebrate brains.

Collecting wild snails in Albertan ponds with Prof. Ken Lukowiak.

Collecting wild snails in Albertan ponds with Prof. Ken Lukowiak.

Is there anything that you learned while writing this Commentary that surprised you?

Writing this Commentary allowed me and my colleagues to further explore the great contribution of invertebrates to many fields, including biomedical and neuroscience research. Although these organisms show different and unique behaviors, sensory capabilities and body organization, they also show surprising commonalities with mammals, including humans. I have been amazed by the discoveries I have read and summarized in the Commentary. I think it is remarkable that ‘small’ brains can produce extremely sophisticated behaviors with a limited number of neurons.

Are there any important historical papers from your field that have been published in JEB?

Personally, I think that ‘Operant conditioning of aerial respiratory behaviour in Lymnaea stagnalis’, published by Lukowiak et al. in 1996 (doi:10.1242/jeb.199.3.683) represents a milestone for research on learning and memory. This study, in fact, paved the way for the studies which demonstrated that a three-neuron central pattern generator is necessary and sufficient for operant conditioning long-term memory formation, storage and recall. These discoveries enabled direct investigations of interactions between a single cell and a neuronal network that are necessary for memory formation, reconsolidation and extinction.

Are there any modern-day papers that you think will be the classic papers of 2123?

I really liked the paper by Shomrat and Levin titled ‘An automated training paradigm reveals long-term memory in planarians and its persistence through head regeneration’, published in JEB in 2013 (doi:10.1242/jeb.087809). The authors developed a computerized training and testing paradigm to study the dynamics of memory in a regenerating brain. Based on the interesting results of this pilot study, planarians have been proposed as key emerging model species for studying the encoding of specific memories in biological tissues. I think these results may have important implications for the biomedicine of stem-cell-derived treatments of degenerative brain disorders in human adults.

What's next for you?

Right now, in addition to pursuing preclinical studies in the field of translational neuropharmacology, I am also devoting myself to clinical studies. I believe that for a pharmacologist-in-training like me, it is important to know both types of research. In addition, I am getting interested in big data analysis for health, which I believe is the future of clinical and preclinical research.

Veronica Rivi's contact details: University of Modena and Reggio Emilia, Via Campi, 287, 41125 Modena, Italy.

E-mail: [email protected]

J. M. C.
Invertebrates as models of learning and memory: investigating neural and molecular mechanisms
J. Exp. Biol.