I’m Jonathan Ashmore, I’m Bernard-Katz professor of biophysics here at University College London, and I also happen to be president of The Physiological Society. This laboratory studies the cellular mechanisms of hearing, and in particular we’re intereseted in the sensory cells of the inner ear, and in particular the mammalian inner ear, because we want to know how the cells and the molecules which control hearing work. Most of the work that I’ve been involved in I suppose over the last, sort of, 20 years has been concerned with how the ear amplifies sound. And it turns out that inside your inner ear you have
a biological amplifier, and that depends on a cluster of cells which can modify the mechanics of the cochlear and amplify the sound. Oh it is much more exciting and I think another key reason is because in physiology, and neuroscience, you’re in control essentially of everything all the way through from thinking about the experiment, through to designing the experiment itself, to the equipment and to even doing the experiment so very often you can think of an important experiment in the morning, and you might actually know, with a bit of luck, what the answer is by the end of the day, and that’s sort of exticment…exciting. It’s very different from the world of high-energy physics where you might have to wait decades to know what the outcome of the experiment actually was. The challenges in auditory neuroscience? Well, there’s a big one, which at the moment nobody actually knows what is the molecule that converts sound into an electrical signal; we don’t know the trasnduction channel. And there’s a lot of labs looking for that one but they haven’t found it…yet. There may be several channels, of course. And then the other problems then concern what the brain is actually doing with that information. So there’s been a huge amount of interest in thinking about everything from early processing of sound signals, up to more complex tasks, such as how does
speech recognition work. And trying to link essentially the networks of neurons that you find in the brain and the brainstem to those rather more complicated perceptual tasks. Physiology is a very interesting but demanding discipline to study. It’s interesting because it covers almost everything we want to know about how animals, and ourselves, actually work. It’s very demanding because very often you can’t understand how the individual parts work unless you put them into context. And so therefore you need to spread your knowledge around many different topics before you have an overall grasp. And so my advice really is if you’re an up-and-coming physiologist is just to keep your eyes open, don’t just focus on your particular narrow field but do have a look into adjacent fields in physiology from time to time because there’s all sorts of wonderful things happening. For example, in my own work, rather reluctantly I find myself having to teach the kidney to medical students and it turns out that some of the structures in the kidney, some of the molecules in the kidney turn out to be absolutely critical for our understanding of how the cells in the ear work. So there’s huge amounts of cross fertilization that happens between all these different fields even within physiology.