Sleep, Plasticity, and Conscious Experience

What We Do

Traditionally, sleep and wakefulness have been considered as two global, mutually exclusive states. However, this view has been challenged by the discovery that sleep and wakefulness are locally regulated and that islands of these two states may often coexist in the same individual. Importantly, the local regulation of sleep seems to be key for many of the known functions of this physiological state, including the maintenance of brain functional efficiency, the consolidation or stabilization of new memories and the modulation of mood and emotional reactivity. Local changes in brain activity during sleep may also explain the emergence of particular conscious experiences in the form of dreams, and may modulate the level of sensory disconnection that is essential for a restorative sleep. On the other hand, during wakefulness, the reiterated activation of specific brain areas may lead to a state of functional fatigue, characterized by the appearance of local, sleep-like episodes. These events seem to have important consequences for behavior and cognition and may contribute to explain the known effects of sleep loss. Given these premises, alterations in the local regulation of sleep and wakefulness may represent the pathophysiological basis for symptoms observed in many sleep disorders, but also in some psychiatric or neurological disorders.


  • The relationship between slow waves and conscious experience during sleep (ERC-funded project)

  • The behavioral and neural correlates of local sleep-like episodes during wakefulness (collaboration with University of Wisconsin)

  • The cortical and subcortical correlates of sleep slow waves and arousals (collaboration with UniMoRe and NIH)

  • The application of natural language processing to dream content analysis (BIAL-funded project) - click HERE for info

  • The anatomo-functional bases of sensory disconnection during sleep


Who We Are

Principal InvestigatorAssociate ProfessorScholar, ResearchGate, Twitter
PostDoctoral FellowBioengineering[autonomic activity in sleep]
PostDoctoral FellowPsychology[local sleep in wakefulness]
PostDoctoral FellowCognitive Science[dream engineering]
PhD StudentLinguistics[language in dreams]
PhD StudentPsychology[sensory disconnection in sleep]
PhD StudentNeuroscience[autonomic activity in sleep]
PhD StudentNeuropsychology[dreaming]
PhD StudentCognitive Science[sensory processing and sleep]
PhD StudentNeurosciences[sensory processing and dreams]
PhD StudentBody and Mind Sciences[dreams and memory]
PhD StudentPsychology[TBD]
PhD StudentLinguistics[TBD]

Interns, Guest Students, and Visiting Researchers

Flavia Petruso

Sant'Anna School, Medicine

Monica di Giuliano

University of Padova, Psychology

Alessandra Battani

University of Pisa, Psychology


Laura Sophie Imperatori

PhD Student (2017-2020)

Elena Capriglia

Medicine Student (2018-2020)

Davide Bertelloni

Psychology Student (2019-2020)

Francesco Lomi

Psychology Student (2021-2022)

Kim Mi Lande

Neuroscience Student (2022)

Annkathrin Böke

Neuroscience Student (2022)

Marie Degrave

Neuroscience Student (2022)

Sıla Mutaf

Psychology Student (2022)

Francesco Pietrogiacomi

Psychology Student (2022)

Niccolò Pampaloni

Neurobiology PostDoc (2022)

Research Positions

Senior Postdoctoral Fellow

We are looking for a 3-year full-time postdoc with solid experience in coding and EEG data processing/analysis to work on ERC-funded projects investigating the possibility of modulating sleep and dreams through sensory stimulation protocols. The projects involve the application of real-time data processing and source modeling approaches. For info, please contact:

PhD Student Positions - Call Closed!

  • Title: PhD Program in Cognitive and Cultural Systems

  • Track: Cognitive, Computational, and Social Neurosciences

  • Deadline: The next call will be opened around spring 2023

  • Full description of the call: TBD

What We Publish

Emotion regulation failures are preceded by local increases in sleep-like activity

Giulia Avvenuti, Davide Bertelloni, Giada Lettieri, Emiliano Ricciardi, Luca Cecchetti, Pietro Pietrini, Giulio BernardiJournal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 2021. DOI: 10.1162/jocn_a_01753
Emotion self-regulation relies both on cognitive and behavioral strategies implemented to modulate the subjective experience and/or the behavioral expression of a given emotion. While it is known that a network encompassing fronto-cingulate and parietal brain areas is engaged during successful emotion regulation, the functional mechanisms underlying failures in emotion suppression are still unclear. In order to investigate this issue, we analyzed video and high-density EEG recordings of nineteen healthy adult subjects during an emotion suppression (ES) and a free expression (FE) task performed on two consecutive days. Changes in facial expression during ES, but not FE, were preceded by local increases in sleep-like activity (1-4Hz) in in brain areas responsible for emotional suppression, including bilateral anterior insula and anterior cingulate cortex, and in right middle/inferior frontal gyrus (p<0.05, corrected). Moreover, shorter sleep duration the night prior to the ES experiment correlated with the number of behavioral errors (p=0.01) and tended to be associated with higher frontal sleep-like activity during emotion suppression failures (p=0.05). These results indicate that local sleep-like activity may represent the cause of emotion suppression failures in humans, and may offer a functional explanation for previous observations linking lack of sleep, changes in frontal activity and emotional dysregulation.

Cortical and subcortical hemodynamic changes during sleep slow waves in human sleep

Betta, Handjaras, Leo, Federici, Farinelli, Ricciardi, Siclari, Meletti, Ballotta, Benuzzi, Giulio BernardiNeuroImage, 2021. DOI: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2021.118117
EEG slow waves, the hallmarks of NREM sleep, are closely linked to the restorative function of sleep and their regional cortical distribution reflects plasticity- and learning-related processes. Here we took advantage of simultaneous EEG-fMRI recordings to map cortical and subcortical hemodynamic (BOLD) fluctuations time-locked to sleep slow waves. Recordings were performed in twenty healthy adults during an afternoon nap. Slow waves were associated with BOLD-signal increases in the brainstem and in portions of thalamus and cerebellum characterized by preferential functional connectivity with limbic and somatomotor areas, respectively. At the cortical level, significant BOLD-signal decreases were found in several areas, including insula and somatomotor cortex, and were preceded by slow signal increases that peaked around slow-wave onset. EEG slow waves and BOLD fluctuations showed similar cortical propagation patterns, from centro-frontal to temporo-occipital cortices. These regional patterns of hemodynamic-electrical coupling are consistent with theoretical accounts of the functions of sleep slow waves.

Integrity of corpus callosum is essential for the cross-hemispheric propagation of sleep slow waves: a high-density EEG study in split-brain patients

Avvenuti, Handjaras, Betta, Cataldi, Imperatori, Lattanzi, Riedner, Pietrini, Ricciardi, Tononi, Siclari, Polonara, Fabri, Silvestrini, Bellesi, BernardiJournal of Neuroscience, 2020. DOI: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.2571-19.2020
The slow waves of NREM-sleep behave as traveling waves and their propagation has been suggested to reflect the integrity of white matter cortico-cortical connections. To directly assess this hypothesis, here we investigated the role of the corpus callosum in the cortical spreading of NREM slow waves through the study of a rare population of totally callosotomized patients. Our results demonstrate a causal role of the corpus callosum in the cross-hemispheric traveling of sleep slow waves. Additionally, we found that callosotomy does not affect the relative tendency of each hemisphere at generating slow waves. Incidentally, we also found that slow waves tend to originate more often in the right than in the left hemisphere in both callosotomized and healthy adult individuals.

Our Collaborations

What We Develop

Our Talks

Bernardi - Investigating the relationship between dreams and memories: old problems and new solutions. Congress of the Word Sleep Society, Rome, Italy, 2022.

Bergamo - Cortical hemodynamic changes associated with sleep slow waves in school-age children. Congress of the Word Sleep Society, Rome, Italy, 2022.

Bernardi - Brain networks underlying dream activity. Annual conference of the Italian Society of Psychophysiology (SIPF), Palermo, Italy, 2021.

Bernardi - Cortical and subcortical hemodynamic changes during human sleep slow waves. Annual conference of the Swiss Sleep Society (SSSSC), Solothurn, Switzerland, 2021.

Avvenuti - The corpus callosum is essential for the cross-hemispheric propagation of sleep slow waves: a high-density EEG study in totally callosotomized patients. Congress of the Word Sleep Society, Vancouver, Canada, 2019.

Imperatori - Cross-participant prediction of vigilance stages through the combined use of wpli and wsmi eeg functional connectivity metrics. Congress of the Word Sleep Society, Vancouver, Canada, 2019.

Betta - Slow waves of sleep are associated with increased thalamic activity and with a delayed decreased activity in primary sensory cortices. Congress of the Italian Society of Sleep Medicine (AIMS), Genova, Italy, 2019.

Bernardi - Experience-dependent regulation of sleep-need: effects on brain functioning and behavioral performance. Congress of the International Organization of Psychophysiology, Lucca, Italy, 2018.

Bernardi - The effects of acute, short-term visual deprivation on low-frequency EEG activity during wakefulness and sleep. Congress of the Word Sleep Society, Prague, Czech Republic, 2017.