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Kathy Dunlap, PhD

Kathleen A. Dunlap, Ph.D., Professor of Neuroscience at Tufts University Medical School and Professor in the Molecular Cardiology Research Institute at the New England Medical Center in Boston is the 11th Fredric S. Fay lecturer. Dr. Dunlap shares with Fred a passion for using imaging and electrophysiological techniques to advance our understanding of the most basic cellular properties of single cells.

Like Fred, Dr. Dunlap’s research interests primarily focus on the role of calcium in regulating cell function. Her early work in the 1970’s led her to the fundamental observation that a variety of different neurotransmitters including, serotonin, GABA, and norepinephrine bind to their respective receptors to specifically modulate voltage-gated calcium currents in sensory neurons. At that time, the explanation for presynaptic inhibition at vertebrate sensory nerve terminals was that these transmitters produced a generalized increase in membrane conductance that simply “shunted” the action potential. In this model, changes in calcium influx and subsequent neurotransmitter release were considered secondary effects. Using pharmacological tools while recording currents, she demonstrated that no general changes in membrane properties occurred, suggesting that the prevailing model was incorrect. Rather, the transmitters selectively altered the activity of calcium channels. Subsequent work in her lab revealed that none of the transmitters acted directly on calcium channels, but rather coupled to G-protein mediated signal transduction cascades where different G-proteins stimulated different forms of modulation. Additionally, Kathy’s lab proposed that some Gi/Go-proteins act directly on calcium channels without further involvement of signaling molecules to rapidly inhibit a cell’s calcium current and underlying contribution to action potential wave forms, firing frequency, and neurotransmitter release. These additional studies, along with contributions from a great many other labs, proved that her initial model was indeed correct, not only for sensory neurons but for all neurons, cardiac myocytes, smooth muscle and endocrine cells – in short – most cells, precipitating a sea change in how scientists envision the physiological consequences of calcium channel modulation by neurotransmitters.

Dr. Dunlap received her BA, cum laude, and PhD from the University of California in Los Angeles. After post-doctoral training at Harvard Medical School with Gerald Fischbach, she joined the faculty at Tufts University Medical School in 1979. She serves there as the Director of the Synapse Neurobiology Predoctoral Training Program and Director of the Graduate Program in Neuroscience. In 2008-2009, she served as the president of the Society of General Physiologists. She has received numerous awards for research excellence including a Klingenstein Fellowship, a McKnight Neurosciences Development Award, and a Jacob Javits Award.