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January 10, 2022

ERC Starting Grant for neurobiologist Anissa Kempf

How does our brain control sleep? A five-year European Research Council (ERC) Starting Grant is enabling Professor Anissa Kempf at the Biozentrum of the University of Basel to investigate the molecular basis of sleep.

Prof. Anissa Kempf.

The ERC’s prestigious Starting Grant recognizes innovative research by outstanding early career scientists and enables the recipients to establish their own research program. One of the top researchers to be awarded the generous grant is neurobiologist Professor Anissa Kempf, who leads a research group at the Biozentrum of the University of Basel since October 2021. Her project investigates how neurons in the brain control sleep behavior.

“I am delighted to have been awarded an ERC Starting Grant. It means that I can fully focus on an important and ambitious research goal over the coming years, now the financing is in place,” she explains.

Following recent ERC grant awards to Professors Médéric Diard, Flavio Donato and Maria Hondele, Prof. Anissa Kempf’s ERC grant is the fourth in a row for incoming Assistant Professors at the Biozentrum.  

Financing through Swiss federal funds

When proposals were invited for the ERC Starting Grants 2021, Switzerland was still eligible for ERC funding. Researchers at Swiss institutions were able to submit applications and their research proposals were evaluated by the ERC.

Following the breakdown of the negotiations between the EU and Switzerland, as well as the European Commission’s decision to treat Switzerland as a non-associated third country, the successful projects will now be funded directly by the State Secretariat for Education, Research and Innovation (SERI). In the case of Kempf, the total funding is CHF 1.5 million. This is one of the interim measures that the Swiss government is taking to cushion the consequences of Switzerland’s exclusion from Horizon Europe. 

The mystery of sleep

Sleep is essential for the organism. It is controlled by motivational drives, just like eating or mating. Our drive to sleep increases as the need accrues and resets once it is satisfied. Anissa Kempf and her research team investigate how sleep drive is generated in the brain. Her research results have recently shown that the accumulation of free oxygen radicals in the mitochondria, the powerhouses of the cell, increases the activity of a specific group of neurons and thereby induces sleep.

Using behavioral assays, imaging techniques and electrophysiological measurements, Kempf now wants to study the interplay between neuronal activity and mitochondrial metabolism in more details. The scientist aims thereby to gain further insight into the mechanisms controlling sleep-wake rhythms. The results could also provide fundamental insights into other motivational drives.

“I have been investigating sleep for a long time. So I am delighted that we now have funding for this research area,” Kempf explains. “The Starting Grant will be a huge boost for my research group and will hopefully encourage excellent early career researchers to join our team.”

Contact: Communications, Heike Sacher

ERC Starting Grant