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Duke's Ehlers Named Howard Hughes Investigator

Duke's Ehlers Named Howard Hughes Investigator
Duke's Ehlers Named Howard Hughes Investigator


Duke Health News Duke Health News

DURHAM, N.C. -- Michael Ehlers, M.D., Ph.D., an associate professor of neurobiology at Duke University Medical Center, has been named a Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) investigator by HHMI. He is one of 43 scientists selected in a national competition.

Ehlers joins eight other Duke University scientists who are now HHMI investigators, with their research supported by the institute.

Another scientist from the area -- Yi Zhang of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill -- also was named a new investigator.

"We are committed to providing these scientists—and the nearly 300 scientists who are already part of HHMI—with the freedom and flexibility they need in order to make lasting contributions to mankind," said HHMI President Thomas R. Cech, of the new investigators. "We want and expect them to be daring.

"These scientists are on the rapidly rising slope of their careers and have made surprising discoveries in a short period of time," said Cech. "We have every reason to believe that they will use their creativity to extend the boundaries of scientific knowledge for many years to come."

Ehlers' research concentrates on the intricate molecular machinery by which neurons in the brain signal one another, and how they adjust their connections in the process of laying down new memories. His basic research contributes to understanding of how such processes can be compromised with aging and neurodegenerative diseases.

A neuron triggers a nerve impulse in its neighbor by launching a burst of chemicals called neurotransmitters across connections between neurons called synapses -- thousands of which exist between each neuron and its neighbors. The neuronal receiving stations for neurotransmitters are dendrites -- small branching projections from neurons -- and these dendrites in turn are covered with spines. Neurotransmitters plug into specialized receptors on dendritic spines, which trigger a nerve impulse in the receiving cell.

The propagation of such nerve impulses across the myriad of neurons is the basis of all brain function. And the rapid adjustment of the strength of connections among neurons is the basis of establishing preferred transmission pathways during learning.

Ehlers' research concentrates on the molecular mechanisms that underlie this intricate, constantly changing circuitry. His research has explored the molecular processes within dendrites that govern the function and adaptability of synaptic connections.

He received his M.D. and Ph.D. degrees from the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and his B.S. in chemistry from the California Institute of Technology. His honors include the 2003 Eppendorf and Science Prize in Neurobiology, for the most outstanding neurobiological research by a young scientist performed during the past three years, and the Wakeman Scholar Award in Neurobiology.

HHMI seeks out highly creative investigators at distinguished universities, research institutes, and medical schools across the U.S. who span the full range of leading-edge biological and biomedical research. It identifies them through multi-level peer-reviewed competitions and employs them within the context of HHMI's relationship with their "host institution."

HHMI's philosophy is to support "people, not projects," and HHMI provides long-term, flexible funding to enable its investigators to pursue their scientific interests wherever they lead. HHMI currently employs approximately 300 investigators from more than 60 such host institutions, along with more than 2,000 of their scientific staff.

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