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In The Spotlight

Dwight BerglesFor Dwight Bergles, the BSi’s growing mastery of two-photon imaging opens up one of neuroscience’s most enticing frontiers. Beyond providing exquisite real-time access into the signaling process between neurons at synapses, says Bergles, this brave new microscopy illuminates the action within the nervous system’s supporting actors, the glial cells.

Bergles describes how this approach allows scientists to track the rise and fall of calcium, a key element of most signaling pathways, within and between glial cells, helping to round out the bigger picture for how neural circuits really work. “This is all a very interesting aspect of the nervous system that we know very little about,” says Bergles. “I believe we’re really at the cusp of making some fascinating discoveries about these cells.”

Plumbing the glial deep, Bergles believes, will open up basic understandings about how memories are formed and preserved. The field should also aid researchers homing in on neurological diseases. It’s known, says Bergles that the underlying pathology behind Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) stems, in part, from the dysfunction of glial cells. “The implications of this new understanding about glial cells are huge,” says Bergles. The BSi, he says, is hoping the new imaging breakthroughs “will help us understand how the nervous system works a whole.”

A native of Iowa who was ironically drawn to marine biology and the cult of Jacques Cousteau, Bergles migrated to Boston University’s lab at Woods Hole, where his primary mentor led him to appreciate the values of good experimental design and to pursue his essential curiosities. (In his presentation at last January’s “Brain Night” hosted by BSi at Johns Hopkins, Bergles joked that the paper he produced there, about the nervous system of a sea squirt, had been cited nine times since its publication in 1992).

Thus lit with growing curiosity about the inner workings of structures like ion channels, Bergles took a course in neurobiology that drew him further into the molecular exploration of synapses, sending him on an entirely new career path at Stanford University. There, he was able to pursue questions relating to the nervous system of mammals, and phenomena such as the modulation of the activity of inhibitory neurons.

After learning more about synapses and the joy of the scientific process under skilled mentors at The Vollum Institute in Portland, Oregon, Johns Hopkins’ Sol Snyder and Jeff Rothstein teamed up to lure Bergles with the idea that mastery of the basics of neurophysiology should be applied to the process of curing brain-related diseases in humans. By the time the BSi dawned in 2007, Bergles was an associate professor in Hopkins’ neuroscience department, ready to go.

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