Sleep, Exercise and Cerebrovascular function
In my current postdoctoral fellowship I am working on findings from the Brain in Motion (BIM) study (Tindall et al., 2013), a quasi-experimental longitudinal study conducted on healthy sedentary middle aged and older adults with no cognitive complaints. The main aim of the study is to investigate the effects of six-months aerobic exercise intervention on several outcomes including sleep and brain health. Specifically I am looking at effects of the exercise intervention on sleep as measured with subjective measures (PSQI) and Polysomnography (Guadagni et al., JAD Reports, 2018), brain health (MRI) and cognition. I have also been working on the main endpoint of the BIM study, the effects of the aerobic exercise intervention on cerebrovascular regulation measured with transcranial Doppler ultrasound (TCD) and on cognitive domains of executive functions, memory and attention.
Effects of sleep, sleep-deprivation, and sleep disturbances on cognitive functioning
Sleep is important for our mental, physical and emotional well–being. It plays a critical role in a variety of functions, including restoration of the endocrine and metabolic processes, energy conservation, memory consolidation, and recovery of cortical functioning. In support of such a critical role, it has long been established that sleep deprivation degrades several aspects of neurocognitive performance. In my research, I use total sleep deprivation paradigms to test the effects of lack of sleep on a variety of cognitive processes, including emotional processing and spatial orientation.
Sleep and Empathy
The effect of sleep loss on mood and emotions’ processing has been shown to be more impactful on daily life than its effect on motor performance. However, the effects of sleep loss on higher order cognitive processes such as emotional empathy are still not fully understood. In my research, I investigate the detrimental effects of sleep loss and poor sleep quality on emotional empathy. In these studies participants are usually deprived of one night of sleep, or they are monitored through an actigraph for one week in order to have a reliable measure of their quality of sleep; then, they are asked to perform emotional empathy tasks in which they report their emotional empathic responses while viewing photographs with emotional valence. In addition, some participants are recruited for neuroimaging studies (fMRI, Task and Resting-State functional connectivity, cortical thickness and other structural analyses) in which I investigate the neurological bases underlying the significant cognitive and behavioural relationship between sleep and empathy.
Sleep, empathy and cortisol in Paramedics
The negative effects of sleep deprivation due to shift work on cognitive performance are well known. However, the effects of an altered sleep routine due to shift work on emotional processes and mental health are unclear. My research aims at investigating how shift work can affect the ability to share someone else’s emotions. Participants recruited for this research are Paramedics with at least five years of experience; paramedics are an important population to investigate given that not only they are involved in rotating shift work, but they are also constantly exposed to difficult and traumatic situations. The experimental procedure for this research involve collecting salivary cortisol at waking time (T0) and 30 min after (T1) with the purpose to investigate if the glucocorticoid stress response is related to changes in their emotional empathy responses, as measured by our tests.
Sleep and Spatial orientation
Sleep is significantly linked to learning and memory. Specifically, studies adopting an experimentally induced sleep loss protocol in healthy individuals have provided evidence that the consolidation of spatial memories, as acquired through navigating and orienteering in spatial surroundings, is negatively affected by total sleep loss. My research focuses on investigating the effects of poor sleep quality (as opposed to sleep deprivation) on the ability of the individuals to solve spatial orientation and navigation tasks administered in virtual environments.