Press release

Dialogue with the "other brain" through astrocytes and graphene


Schematic image of an astrocyte embracing a graphene molecule
Schematic image of an astrocyte embracing a graphene molecule

A research group coordinated by Cnr-Isof, with the participation of Cnr-Ismn, Unibo and Czech Academy of Science, foundf that graphene has properties capable of controlling and modulating the activities of astrocytes, a type of brain cell. The study, published in Nature Nanotechnology, may have positive implications for the treatment of important and complex brain pathologies such as epilepsy and stroke


Work recently published in the journal Nature Nanotechnology demonstrates that, by exploiting the different properties of graphene-based materials, the signals of astrocytes can be selectively controlled, which in turn, when electrically stimulated, are able to alter the activity of neurons.

The research is coordinated by the Institute for organic synthesis and photoreactivity of the National Research Council (Cnr-Isof), in collaboration with the Institute for the study of nanostructured materials (Cnr-Ismn), the Fabit and Dei departments of University of Bologna (Unibo) and the Institute of Experimental Medicine of the Czeck Academy of Science in Prague (Czech Republic).

Astrocytes are star-shaped brain cells which, together with the neurons themselves, perform important functions within the brain, modulating synapses and participating in mechanisms involving memory, learning and behavior. These stellate cells, also called "the other brain", are present in large numbers in the human brain, they communicate with each other, with neurons and blood vessels, through a communication code based on calcium ions. “By combining the different properties of graphene we were able to create a new, simple and effective approach to selectively stimulate and interrogate astrocytes. The study confirmed that astrocytes can be excited by an electric field and that they provide a different response based on the type of electrodes through which they are stimulated. This occurs through the activation of different calcium 'codes', thanks to the unique and controllable properties of graphene oxide", explains Vincenzo Palermo, researcher at Cnr-Isof.

The studies of the last forty years have completely revolutionized the neurocentric vision of the brain, which attributed cognitive abilities to the activity of neurons alone. However, despite the importance of astrocytes, little is known about their functioning and many technologies for the study of the brain, as well as for the treatment of diseases related to the nervous system, are focused on the selective modulation of neurons. “Our approach is aimed at generating technologies capable of communicating with astrocytes: a paradigm shift of which we were pioneers, and which today is engaging by more and more scientists. Changing our way of communicating with brain cells, through gliomodulation, will allow us to face and understand what is still obscure regarding its functionality. Furthermore, this will enable to possibly treat some dysfunctions, such as those linked to alteration of calcium signals in astrocytes, which are implicated in pathologies such as stroke and epilepsy", concludes Valentina Benfenati, researcher at the Cnr-Isof and coordinator of the research with colleagues Vincenzo Palermo and Emanuele Treossi.

The work was supported by the European Astrotech project, Prin-Pnrr Nanodyn and by the Us-Afosr Astrolight and Astrotalk research projects (coordinated by Valentina Benfenati) and by the Graphene Flaghsip project (led by Vincenzo Palermo). The activities are part of the strategy of the working group on Advanced Materials, Nanomaterials and Biophysics of the Joint Italy-US Commission on Science and Technology chaired by Luigi Ambrosio (CNR) and Sofi Bin-Salamon (AFOSR).

For more information: Valentina Benfenati, Cnr-Isof,




Per informazioni:
Valentina Benfenati

Ufficio stampa:
Danilo Santelli
Cnr Press Office

Responsabile Unità Ufficio stampa:
Emanuele Guerrini
06 4993 3383

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