For a person to think, act or feel, the neurons in the brain must communicate continuously, rapidly and repeatedly. For over 30 years, Professor Thomas Südhof has shed light on synaptic transmission, the process by which neurons transmit chemical and electrical signals to each other. His research has led to more insight into brain disorders such as schizophrenia, autism, and Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases.
In 2013, Prof Südhof was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, alongside two other scientists, for his discovery of how signalling molecules, which are transported in sac-like structures called vesicles, are released at precise times to facilitate synaptic transmission. The Nobel Prize committee said that his breakthrough was a key part of understanding the “exquisitely precise control system for the transport and delivery of cellular cargo”.
His work was part of a wave of advances that resulted in greater knowledge of how neurons communicate. These studies subsequently became the basis of life-changing therapies. Still, most molecular and cellular processes in the brain remain enigmatic. “Very few laboratories now study how a neuron is made, but this is absolutely crucial and essential for any progress in understanding the diseases of the brain,” he said.
His laboratory at Stanford University analyses how synapses – the junctions between neurons that transfer and compute information – form in the brain, how their properties are specified, and they become dysfunctional in neurodegenerative and neuropsychiatric disorders.
He is also involved in several firms. He co-founded Recognify Life Sciences, a biotechnology company developing a drug to treat the cognitive impairment associated with schizophrenia. He said that its lead candidate, RL-007, enhances the mechanisms of neuronal signalling, learning and memory, but apparently without the side effects linked to other compounds acting on these mechanisms.
Prof Südhof is now 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, in Stanford University. He is also an Investigator in the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.
His other honours include the 2010 Kavli Prize, 2013 Albert Lasker Award, 2018 Pericles Prize and 2020 Sherrington Lecture Award.
Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine