Michiel Remme simulates the transfer of signals between nerve cells. The Dutch neurobiologist is postdoctoral fellow at the Institute for Theoretical Biology, Humboldt – Universität zu Berlin.
"How do nerve cells communicate?
The neurosciences include a wide range of topics, from research at the molecular level to psychology and psychophysics. My branch of research is neuropsychology, which looks at measuring the activities of individual neurons, or in other words nerve cells. There are many different types of nerve cells. My work concentrates on the pyramidal neurons, which are located in the cerebral cortex, the outer layer of the brain.
What is the function of a nerve cell? It receives electrical signals from between 10,000 and 20,000 other nerve cells and transforms them into electrical signals that it then transmits. The cell is covered by numerous small projections called dendrites. These structures are my area of expertise. You can picture them like the top of a tree, full of very fine, extensively branched structures. They are in fact very beautiful. In terms of their size, dendrites are hundreds of micrometres in length and less than one micrometre wide. Each branch obtains input signals from hundreds of other cells. I investigate how the spatial configuration of the dendrites impacts on the further transmission of signals.
We have made a great deal of progress in the past 15 years. Unfortunately, animal experiments are still required in our work. When a mouse completes a certain task, for example stepping on a lever to get a drop of water, we can now measure the activity of single neurons using electrodes. At the same time – and this is a new possibility – we can use fluorescent substances to demonstrate how the concentration of calcium changes in a cell. Calcium is an important indicator in determining whether a cell is receiving an input or generating an output.
I do not conduct any experiments. My task is a mathematical one. I interpret data that other specialists have collected in experiments. Complex mathematical formulas can be used to map and understand many neuronal processes. While I do not work on the visualisation of dendrites, I do feel that these formulas contain an inherent beauty, the beauty of mathematics.
Apart from research, my biggest passion is music. I start every day by sitting down at my piano and playing music, Bach for example. In the past I studied musicology, but I do not see any direct link to my current work. We are very, very far away from understanding why people enjoy and appreciate music at a neural level. I am also quite sceptical as to whether we will ever get there.
This page will not be updated after the end of the fellowship.