Neurons loom large on the cellular landscape, with a surface area up to 10,000 times that of the typical animal cell and thousands of synapses that connect to neighboring neurons. How does a brain cell keep so much circuitry working?
That question is central to Michael Ehlers's work. He explores how brain cells adapt to changing environments, maintaining large collections of synapses and storing information at a molecular level. He is intrigued by our ability to store memories for years while the molecules in our brains are replaced every few days. He seeks to understand how cellular processes that emerged in smaller, simpler cells work in the scaled-up, specialized milieu of a neuron. He uses cell biological and biochemical techniques to investigate postsynaptic structures.
In the lab, Ehlers demonstrated different methods neurons use to self-regulate electrical activity, adjusting the level of protein receptors in the postsynaptic membrane to strengthen connections with neighboring neurons (a key feature of learning and memory) or dampen them, allowing the neuron to "reset." He showed recently that cell structures called recycling endosomes trigger a prolonged burst in a neuron's electrical activity by causing a surge in so-called AMPA receptors. He also demonstrated that neurons increase their sensitivity by "alternate splicing" of NMDA receptors to generate extra variants. Ehlers plans to use biochemical, optical imaging, and biophysical approaches to probe the internal organization of neurons, including the nanoarchitecture of brain synapses, to reveal fundamental mechanics of brain cell communication.
Outside the lab, Ehlers plays the French horn in a local symphony orchestra, is considered a concert-level pianist, and is an avid kayaker.