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UZH Journal

Smart Heart Pacemakers

Elisa Donati

Breathe in, breathe out, breathe in again, breathe out: These rhythmic muscle movements occur without your even having to think about it. This is thanks to what is called a central pattern generator in our nervous system that autonomously sends regular signals to the muscles involved; in the case of breathing, the diaphragm and parts of the ribcage muscles. The generator responds rapidly to elevated physical activity, making you breathe more quickly, for example, when you climb the stairs rather than taking the elevator.  

Neuroinformatics expert Elisa Donati is modeling this breathing pacemaker as a so-called neuromorphic computer system mimicking our nervous system: Like the real-life biological system it imitates, for example, the computer constantly measures oxygen and carbon dioxide levels in the blood. Donati uses this information to model the rhythm for a new kind of intelligent heart pacemaker. “Because the computer system orients itself on breathing, it’s much more flexible than existing equipment when it comes to adjusting the rhythm of the pacemaker to physical exertion. “

Elisa Donati grew up in Pisa, where she got her first degree in biomedical engineering. She later did a PhD in bio-inspired robotics, studying technologies that take living organisms as their model. Already during her doctoral studies she spent time at the University of Zurich, where she came into contact with neuroinformatics and engineering. Donati was hooked immediately: “The research at UZH is unique, and provides completely new ways of looking at existing problems.”  

This brief insight into research at Zurich sufficed for Elisa Donati, once she had done her PhD, to apply to the EU for a grant to do research at UZH. She’s been working at the Institute of Neuroinformatics since February 2017 and will definitely be staying another year. As she explains with a smile, she loves being in Zurich – not just because of the exciting research, but for the beautiful city as well. 

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“The research at UZH is unique, and provides completely new ways of looking at existing problems.”

Elisa Donati


Neuroinformatics expert Elisa Donati is modeling a new breathing pacemaker.
Image: Frank Brüderli