Ulrich Mueller is an internationally recognized expert on hearing loss and brain development. He investigates how the nervous system processes sound and what happens when the brain does not properly respond to external stimuli. His research on the mutations involved in hearing loss holds promise for developing ways to reverse the process.
For Mueller, the common thread behind his lifelong research is a fascination with the senses—how the brain perceives and processes the outside world. Growing up in Germany, Mueller was an animal lover, particularly interested in the instincts and signals driving their behavior. As he got older and discovered his knack for natural sciences, he turned to a career in neuroscience.
Prior to joining Johns Hopkins as a Bloomberg Distinguished Professor in 2016, Mueller most recently steered the neuroscience program at the Scripps Research Institute in California. In his lab at Hopkins, he is continuing his studies of the molecular workings behind auditory impairment–a line of research that aims to move beyond the traditional solutions of hearing aids and cochlear implants.
“Our real emphasis is not to work with devices, but with small molecules,” Mueller says, describing this as “a huge unmet medical need.”
A second and related emphasis for his lab is the development of the neocortex, a high-functioning structure of the brain that is unique to mammals. Mueller’s research narrows in on the genes that cause severe brain abnormalities, such as the birth defects of microcephaly and lissencephaly.
Mueller says he was compelled to join Hopkins not only for the strength of its neuroscience program, but also because of his access to the medical community here. “I’ll have a much better chance to interface with clinics and physicians,” he says of this opportunity to translate research concepts into real-life medical solutions.
This goal complements his work with Decibel Therapeutics the Boston-based biotechnology company he co-founded to develop novel treatments for hearing loss.
Mueller comes to Hopkins after 13 years with Scripps, where he guided the creation of the Dorris Neuroscience Center. In his lab there, he focused on the mechanical senses, which include hearing. “They are the least understood molecularly,” he says, constituting an “interesting area of biology that is very important to diseases.”
One research emphasis has been Usher Syndrome, a rare and debilitating genetic disease that results in not only hearing loss but eventual blindness. At Scripps, Mueller and his team discovered that defects in hair cells of the inner ear are responsible for the disease—and beyond that, that one of genes affected in Usher Syndrome is also linked to deafness from birth and age-related hearing loss. This research area will continue at Hopkins, Mueller says.
Mueller’s formative years took place in Germany, where he discovered his passion for biology as a young student and went on to study at Albertus Magnus University in Cologne. He first came to the United States in the late 1980s for experimental work with Princeton University, opting to remain in the country for his postdoc fellowship at the University of California, San Francisco.
Before joining Scripps, Mueller returned to Europe for a four-year research stint in Switzerland. At the Friedrich Miescher Institute, he was a tenured investigator in neuroscience.