Meet Marta Pratelli – A Researcher Exploring the Roadmap of the Brain

Let me first introduce myself and tell you why I started to write about fellow scientists at UC San Diego.

Choosing a profession isn’t an easy decision for most people. Some people, however, have an early calling. I knew when I was twelve that I was going to study Biology. I was fascinated by all the things that are going on inside our body and wanted to know how these processes work. Now, I am a biochemist with a PhD and study what happens when people get fat and what we could do about obesity, diabetes and heart disease. Over the years, my fascination for science hasn’t changed, but although it was an easy life choice when I was twelve, it wasn’t easy for me to decide where my path should lead me now. Should I become a professor and lead my own research group, or should I go to industry and start a “real” job as so many are referring to? Or should I do something completely different? Different how? 

All I learned was doing research (at least I thought so) – asking questions, designing experiments and based on the results of those experiments, asking new questions. Although I love science, I am not keen on the academic system where you are constantly under pressure. I admire people that choose research despite all challenges, but for me it felt like being in a hamster wheel where I couldn’t run fast enough not to be bounced around. 

A few months ago, I had a breakthrough in my decision making. I love working with people and teaching students has been a great joy in the last couple of years. I realized that I can combine my love for science with my creative talent and my interest in teaching and start building a career in science communication. You can spark interest about science in people if you find the right words to talk about it. It should be easily accessible and still impart the key principles of scientific discovery. Stories are a great way of doing this.

That is what I want to accomplish with this mini-series of profile pieces – making fellow scientists more visible and their science more approachable. I hope you have as much fun reading those pieces as I had writing them and putting together some original artwork inspired by their research.

Artwork by Ariane Pessentheiner

I was delighted when Marta promptly agreed to an interview after telling her about my idea of writing short profile pieces of fellow postdocs. A week later, we are both sitting in front of our screens (in times of Covid-19 unfortunately, unavoidable) to get to know each other.

Marta moved to San Diego in 2017 – the same year as I did, only a few months apart. There is an immediate connection between us: she is full of enthusiasm, and her eyes light up when she talks about her research. Marta is originally from Italy and did her doctoral studies in the beautiful city of Pisa at the local university.

And yes, even though she really likes living in San Diego, she still misses the original Italian kitchen. Luckily, her boss shares her love for Italian coffee – so at least the coffee supply in the lab is secured. 

Marta is fascinated by the complexity of our brain. Shouldn’t we all be? It is this complexity that allows us to learn and adapt to new situations. Marta started her journey to discover the mysteries of our brain during her doctoral research in Pisa which focused on the neurotransmitter serotonin [1]. Neurotransmitters are messengers in the brain that bring information from one neuron to the next neuron. This delivery system is key for all the functions of the brain. Her PhD work sparked her interest to dive even deeper into understanding the complexity of the brain. “I am really curious how our experiences, how our choices, how our everyday life affects our brain,” says Marta, which is why she chose to come to UC San Diego to join neuroscientist Dr. Nicholas Spitzer’s lab to study different kinds of neuroplasticity which is the ability of the brain to undergo biological changes. 

During our lives, we are confronted with constant change. Our experiences prompt us to adapt and challenge us to learn new things. To be able to do so, our brain must adapt too. It has long been thought that the road map of our brain which is used to deliver messages is pretty much set after our childhood. But the opposite is true. Our behaviors change the network, like building a new settlement that needs to be connected to the road system. With the construction of a new road also come new challenges, like traffic signals that need to be updated or removing old ones that are obsolete. The signals of our brain are different types of neurotransmitters which deliver different types of information from one neuron to the next one.

But how does our brain know where to put a stop signal or where to put a traffic light instead? And how does the brain know how to wire these new connections in the first place? These are questions that Marta is trying to understand in her research which deals with neurotransmitter switching [2]. 

The best driver of neuroplastic change is your behavior. It can be positive – like learning how to juggle improves our overall motor skills. But in other instances, psychoactive substances or pathological conditions lead to negative effects on the brain which also affect our behavior. Marta is primarily interested in how drugs affect signal switches in the brain and how they are connected to anatomical changes. 

 “Imagine a street on which everything is working. and at a certain point a traffic light instead of signaling red, it suddenly only signals green which creates a mess,” Marta explains. “What we try to do is the following (in mice). We use a drug and we look for behavioral changes and then we look into the brain of the mouse to see anatomical changes.” In the next step, Marta puts a block in the brain that prevents the signal from switching. If the behavioral change is gone, you have a piece of information about how the network is set up. “Of course, you don’t know if that is the only change, but it is at least one,” she adds.

Microscopic image of a mouse brain during neurotransmitter switching. This image shows neurons that produce two different neurotransmitters labeled with either red or green fluorescence. Once switching occurs a yellow signal is produced. Image featured as cover art of the Journal of Neuroscience in May 2020 [2].

Once we know which behavioral changes are connected to structural changes and signal switches in the brain, we can use this knowledge to help treat psychological disorders. Marta explains how this could happen: “If you know how you could turn red into green or at least facilitate those processes, with something that is not putting a virus or a drug in your brain, but simply by changing specific behavior – for example, if you go running every morning – (then you could assist therapies).”

Marta knows from her own experience how changes and challenges in your life influences your behavior. Life-changing for her was moving to a foreign country, but it affected her in a very positive way. “Every time I am confronting myself with a different environment, even if it is tough in the very beginning, it is extremely rewarding,” she tells me. “I feel more confident about myself and I am not sure how – maybe through confrontation with people – it brings out the part of me that I like most.” 

In her free time Marta loves to read. Her favorite books also deal with stories about the facets of human behavior – the good and the bad – for example Hannah Arnedt’s “The Origins of Totalitarianisms” which describes and analyzes the formation of Nazism and Stalinism. “From a humanistic perspective she (Arendt) dissected the look at behavior that catches some aspects that you normally miss,” she says and adds with a smirk, “I think this connection (to my work) comes naturally.”

These are trying times we live in. Covid-19 forced all of us to change our routines and behaviors. Marta had to cancel what would have been her first visit back home in over three years. Still, she thinks she is lucky that her family is fine and that her work keeps her busy. To relieve stress, she likes hiking in her neighborhood. “I think every person working in a lab has experienced pressure and anxiety. Stress only about things you can solve now and not the things you cannot do anything about; it is worthless to lose energy. I cannot control the virus, but I can control my behaviors.” That is definitely a recommendation worth following! Hopefully, we can soon go back to hanging out with friends and having BBQs together which she, of course, also misses very much.

In the future, Marta plans to start her own lab, because she finds her work extremely rewarding. She is looking forward to having the freedom to propose her own research. For other scientists that are just in the beginning of the academic journey, Marta has the following advice: “Keep, keep, keep resisting. Sometimes you need time to get to a point of satisfaction, but once you reach that, it’s really worth it!” 

I am sure her enthusiasm and motivation will guide her down the (sometimes rocky) road of academia and make her a great research group leader!


[1] Pratelli M, Migliarini S, Pelosi B, Napolitano F, Usiello A, Pasqualetti M. Perturbation of Serotonin Homeostasis during Adulthood Affects Serotonergic Neuronal Circuitry.  eNeuro. 2017 Apr 11;4(2):ENEURO.0376-16.2017. doi: 10.1523/ENEURO.0376-16.2017. eCollection 2017 Mar-Apr. PMID: 28413824 

[2] Li HQ, Pratelli M, Godavarthi S, Zambetti S, Spitzer NC. Decoding Neurotransmitter Switching: The Road Forward. J Neurosci. 2020 May 20;40(21):4078-4089. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.0005-20.2020. PMID: 32434858