Prof Thomas Südhof’s pioneering work over three decades on synaptic transmission, the process by which neurons transmit chemical and electrical signals to each other, led him to win a Nobel Prize in Medicine in 2013. His research has resulted in a better understanding of brain disorders such as schizophrenia, autism, and Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases.
Neuroscience was not his original area of research focus. As a post-doctoral researcher, he had worked on cholesterol metabolism and contributed to the work that led to the development of statins. However, he decided to switch in the late 1980s to focus on an area less studied, which would give him the opportunity to make discoveries.
In neuroscience, little was known at that time about molecular properties and cell biology of the brain. Südhof explained that his work was among a wave of discoveries that led to major insights into how neurons communicate. These studies led to life-changing therapies. Now, however, the interest in understanding the molecules and cells of the brain has waned and few laboratories that study synaptic transmission.
This shift is due to the impression that much is already known, but this is wrong – most molecular and cellular processes in brain remain enigmatic. “Very few laboratories study how a neuron is made, but this is absolutely crucial and essential for any progress and understanding of diseases of the brain.”
Prof Südhof believes that only when there is better understanding of the fundamental processes in the brain, can scientists recognise how the disease occurs when such processes become abnormal. He says, “This is essential for any future identification of drugs and therapeutic manipulations.”
Currently, Prof Südhof is the Avram Goldstein Professor in the School of Medicine and Professor of Molecular and Cellular Physiology and of Neurosurgery, and by courtesy, of Neurology and of Psychiatry and Behavioural Sciences at Stanford University School of Medicine. In addition, he serves as an Investigator of the Howard Hughese Medical Institute.