Facebook Pixel Code
Banner image
About the Institute

Profile of Mike Salter

Staff profile photo
Dr. Mike Salter

 By: Hannah Sunderani

Dr. Mike Salter, MD, PhD

  • Head and Senior Scientist, Neurosciences & Mental Health
  • Associate Chief, Science Strategy, Research Institute
  • Professor, Department of Physiology and Faculty of Medicine, University of Toronto
  • Professor, Institute of Medical Sciences and Faculty of Dentistry, University of Toronto

1. Where are you from?/Where did you study?

I grew up in London, Ontario and I went to high school and university there. I attended the University of Western Ontario where I did my undergraduate degree for two years, and then I went straight into medical school at Western. Back then, you could get into medical school after two years. This is where my interest in pain started. I remember being in a first year physiology lecture and learning about certain pain mechanisms, and thinking to myself “this is really interesting!” A month or so later Dr. Ron Melzack gave a small evening lecture at Western and he showed us some evocative pictures about the ways people would induce pain relief. I remember thinking, “okay, this is something I have to work on!” After finishing medical school, I moved to McGill University to do a PhD in physiology. I followed my pain interests at McGill and I worked a lot on the cellular spinal cord mechanisms of pain processing.

After that, I came to Toronto and I did my post doctorial training for two years at Toronto Western Hospital followed by a second post-doctorial fellowship for one year in the Samuel Lunenfeld Research Institute at Mount Sinai Hospital. Then in 1989, I started working at SickKids. Throughout the time I’ve been here, I’ve continued along this focus on pain processing research and more broadly on neuroplasticity mechanisms. I am now the Program Head of Neuroscience & Mental Health at the SickKids Research Institute.

2. What are you researching right now?

We’re working on so many things! One of them is looking at neuroplasticity in the brain and the changes in synaptic communication between nerve cells. A core idea in neuroscience is that memory and learning involve the strengthening or weakening of synaptic connections. Your brain has about 100 billion neurons and 100 trillion connections between these neurons, which is made possible by these specialized synaptic interactions. In our research, we look at the strength of these synaptic connections to determine how the brain circuits work, and to better understand the communication taking place from one neuron to another.

To give you a little background, most of the synaptic connections in your brain fall into two categories: excitatory or inhibitory. It’s important that the two stay balanced to make sure the circuits in the brain work properly. The major excitatory connections are dependent upon a chemical synaptic transmission, which is mostly done by a neurotransmitter called glutamate. When glutamate is released its acts on receptors. The receptors (that are important for this discussion) are AMPA and NMDA receptors. AMPA receptors are used to talk, understand, listen and hear; and NMDA receptors are used for other types of function, like breathing. When we want to remember things – like where we parked our car – there is a change in the strength of the synaptic connection between the synapses in various parts of the brain. This change in strength is where NMDA receptors become very important. The strengthening and weakening of the NMDA receptors is like a dimmer switch that can be turned up or down, and we’re researching all the bits and pieces that contribute to this dimmer switch mechanism.

So, our research looks at NMDA receptors and their involvement in the synaptic strengthening or weakening for normal processes like learning and memory, and also in pathology like chronic pain, epilepsy and some neuropsychiatric disorders.

There are two reasons why we are doing this type of research. The first is because it gives us new understanding of how the brain works, which is really cool! The second is because it’s really practical. As we make discoveries about the synaptic strengthening or weakening processes and their involvement in abnormal brain functions, like pain, epilepsy or schizophrenia, then we can think of ways to manipulate the processes to prevent these diseases from occurring or to treat them when they have occurred. This has really got us thinking about how we can target brain interactions and see if they interfere with disease processes. We are hoping to apply this research to treat neuropathic pain and to diseases, like schizophrenia or Alzheimer’s.

Another area we are researching is the function of glial cells. Typically, when most people think of the brain they think only about nerve cells and their function. But, we’ve discovered that a specific type of glial cell, the microglia, is very important in chronic neuropathic pain conditions. This was a major shock and revelation to us in the pain field – it was one of those “Eureka!” moments. We’ve been following the function of microglial cells and trying to understand how they work, how they interact with the neurons and how they affect the balance of excitation and inhibition, which we think is causing chronic pain conditions. We’ve made a lot of strides here and we’ve had some really interesting collaborations come out of it.

3. Who is your all-time favourite scientist and why?

Richard Feynman. He was an iconoclast who was always challenging traditional ideas. He was a fantastic scientist; someone who thought differently than other people and made a big impact. Feynman was also quite humorous and a real character! He’s been my favourite since I read his book – Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman!

4. What in your opinion is the most important scientific breakthrough and why?

There have been lots of really critical scientific breakthroughs, and it’s hard to pick just one. But, in pain biology there was a major breakthrough in the early 1960s by Ron Melzack and Patrick Wall called the “Gate Control Theory of Pain”. It was based on the idea that pain information is actually transformed in the spinal cord before it’s sent to the brain, which can either suppress or enhance the pain that you experience in response to a given stimulus. Although some of the details were not exactly correct, it was probably the most transformative concept in our field. It really gave us a scientific way of thinking about pain processing, which was really different from what came before. We still use the fundamental concept – the balance of inhibition and excitation is very important.

5. What are your major interests outside the lab?

My kids are probably my biggest interests outside the lab. When they were in elementary school and high school my biggest interest was definitely their hockey! They are both in university now. One of my kids is actually working for the summer in a lab at U of T doing neuroscience.

6. Why science?

Science is all about curiosity. I think most of us as scientists are driven by our own intense curiosity; we want to know things. When you’re a kid you think of these interesting things, and as you grow up you realize that there are practical ways to take those interests forward. I come into the lab every day and talk to people doing exciting new and interesting things. I feel really privileged to do what I love, and there are not many people who can say that. This isn’t just a profession to me, it is a lifestyle.  

7. Why SickKids?

I truly lucked into it. Initially I had thought of going to Montreal to be an academic because Montreal is a dynamic pain area. It was my wife who actually brought me to Toronto through her career aspirations. It was luck that a position came up at SickKids to be involved with studies on sudden infant death syndrome, which I took. In retrospect I couldn’t have come to a better environment. This is the best place to work. It’s a unique collegial environment with exceptional people. I don’t think it I could work on the things I do in any other place but here.

8. What is the most controversial question in your field right now?

I’m going to restrict this answer to the pain field again. In our field we know how to treat pain in experimental models, but the biggest challenge is to take the information that we get from experimental models and figure out a way to use it in humans. This is a huge gap, not just in pain biology, but in more broadly in neuroscience and it’s not necessarily clear why that is. As a result, there is a large translational gap for some of the major diseases like chronic pain, diabetes and schizophrenia. Once you move from experimental models to humans there are different factors that become involved. Things get much more complicated and expensive to do. There are a lot of technological advances now that have helped to push things forward. I think the trick now is to use these technologies and do experiments to find why there is this gap.

9. What are you reading right now?

I’d like to reframe that question and focus on music; that’s my reading! I love blues music. It’s probably one of my favourite hobbies outside of work. I’m a major music consumer and a big fan of blues! I just went to an Eric Clapton concert in New York and it was fantastic.

10. If you could give one piece of advice to someone considering a research career, what would it be?

It’s the same advice that I always give: Learn to write well. Communication is critical. You can have a superb experiment with a fabulous set of results, but if you can’t communicate it to others then it doesn’t matter. I told that to my son’s Grade 4 class when he was younger and I stand by it today; communication is the key to success.

Actually, I used to really struggle with writing myself. I would get my wife to edit all my papers and she would be rolling on the floor laughing at my poor grammar! I spent a lot of time working on that to improve my communication skills. The same goes for improving oral presentations. Of course you have to have great ideas in science, but if you can’t communicate them effectively then everything gets lost.

11. What does the Peter Gilgan Centre for Research and Learning mean to you?

Every night I go home and I say, “It’s going to be great!” It’s a fantastic opportunity to really transform the way we do research at SickKids. The whole building is designed to be transformative – from the architecture, to the neighbourhoods and the way people are interspersed. It allows for more collaboration and collegiality. Right now we have people scattered around downtown. With everyone in the same location we’re going to see even more interactions that will enhance the way we work.

September 2013

Scientific profile