Kenneth Miller has spent two decades researching a type of roundworm to understand how neurons function in humans. On Tuesday, his study in the scientific journal Genetics overturns a long- standing hypothesis on how genetic defects affect neurons. This discovery will likely lead to more funding and help extend his research at the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation and hire more staff.
Miller said he hasn't discovered the cure for degenerative brain diseases, but his research will lay the groundwork for the basics of human biology, which can lead to medical breakthroughs. He studies a roundworm called C. elegans to understand how malfunctioning neurons work. Because neurons are the same in all animals, the mutant genes he sees in the lab are the same basic genes that humans have.
"We mutate the worms to disrupt their nervous system to understand how it works," Miller said.
Using a glowing protein, similar to one found in jellyfish, Miller can see how the malfunctioning neurons move within the worms' bodies. Because the worms reproduce quickly, and specimens can be frozen and thawed, they are an ideal animal to use in the research. In humans, neurons are tightly compacted in the brain and spinal cord. In the roundworm, they are visible with the glowing protein.
Miller calls the gene he and his colleagues discovered the gatekeeper gene, because it keeps parts of the cell from interfering with the signals neurons send to other cells. …