Journal of Physiology Consulting Editors: David Attwell

Journal of Physiology Consulting Editors: David Attwell


When I was a kid I was always really interested in how things worked so I started out doing a degree in physics but gradually I got drawn into physiology, and now at University College London I’m working on how the brain works. Now the particular part of the brain that I’m interested in is a set of cells called glial cells, and the one that I’m interested in makes a fatty substance called myelin. Wrapping myelin around a nerve cell speeds up the rate at which it can send information from one place to another, so if you didn’t have myelin to get information, to get a thought, from one side of your head to the other would take about a 1/3 of a second. But with myelin that’s reduced to only about 2/100 of a second, and this greatly enhances our cognitive powers. The work that I do uses brain slices from animals and we use fine glass electrodes to record electrically from the little cells which are going to make the myelin. And by doing this electrical recording we can understand how molecules called neurotransmitters, like glutamate, control the development of those cells, because although glutamate is really crucial for normal signalling in the brain, if its level goes too high for too long it kills the neurons. I studied a little molecule which is a bit like a glutamate hoover. It’s called the glutamate uptake transporter. It constantly sucks up all the glutamate around the cells in the brain or in the retina and stops the glutamate reaching too high a level, but in pathology it actually runs backwards. I contributed to understanding the ion movements which drive it. So just like the hoover in your house which needs to be plugged into the mains to work, the hoovers in the cells need to get the energy from somewhere, so they use energy which is stored in the sodium ion gradient across the membrane to power the uptake of glutamate. In pathological conditions what happens is that the sodium ion gradient runs down and that leads to an absence of power for the glutamate hoover and that’s what makes it run backwards. So it might seem very technical but these abstruse details of the mechanisms are really crucial for understanding how events at the molecular level translate into someone becoming mentally or physically handicapped after these horrible diseases; Cerebral palsy, spinal cord injury and multiple sclerosis. Well I work very much at the molecular and cellular level in the normal development of myelination but also trying to look at what goes wrong. This is all basic research, but of course the long-term aim would be to apply the results of that to clinical situations. This is really hard to do, it takes decades, and you need to go through several stages. This is the long-term aim of the kind of basic research which I do. But it’s funding of this basic research and carrying it out, research which often has no immediately-applicable result, which is ultimately going to lead to cures for these diseases. I think physiology has been through a period of suffering from being fragmented into more and more specialised disciplines as molecular techniques in particular have come into play so physiology departments have been broken up into neurophysiology and cell biology and so on. But in the long term, physiology brings all of these things together so it brings together the molecular mechanisms, the cellular mechanisms and it uses them to explain what goes on in the whole individual. So, as far as I can see the future for physiology is bright.

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