The Neurophysiologist

Mark Ungless measures the electrical activity of nerve cells in the brain. From this, he learns about brain diseases, drug addiction and alcoholism.

I’m interested in brain cells that make a chemical called dopamine. Parkinson’s disease is caused by the death of these types of cell. Dopamine cells are also affected by drugs like cocaine and alcohol – we think they are involved in addiction.

Nerve cells give off small electrical signals in response to chemicals like dopamine and serotonin. I work in a lab, recording this nerve activity. We make very fine glass needles that have tips one thousandth of a millimetre wide and place them next to or inside individual cells. This is tricky! We sit at microscopes surrounded by electrical wires and recording equipment.

It is very difficult to get a stable, useful recording from a nerve cell. The work is technically demanding and requires skill. Very often, we get nothing. However, occasionally it works, and the results can be instant – we’ll find out something new about the nerve’s activity. This ‘Aha!’ moment will be followed up by many weeks of experiments to confirm what we suspected. I spend a large amount of my time in front of my computer or discussing experiments with members of my group.

‘The ‘Aha!’ moment will be followed by weeks of experiments.’

Over the years, I have used slugs, snails, mice and rats, which all have very similar nerve cells to humans. I want to know how Parkinson’s disease develops and about the effects of drugs of abuse and addiction on the brain. Eventually, this could lead to the development of new therapies.

Mark Ungless, research fellow and research group head, Imperial College London

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