Written by Krista Conger
Neuroscientist Thomas Südhof, MD, professor of molecular and cellular physiology at the Stanford University School of Medicine, won the 2013 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.
He shared the prize with James Rothman from Yale University and Randy Schekman from UC-Berkeley. The three were awarded the prize "for their discoveries of machinery regulating vesicle traffic, a major transport system in our cells."
Südhof has spent the past 30 years prying loose the secrets of the synapse, the all-important junction where information, in the form of chemical messengers called neurotransmitters, is passed from one neuron to another. The firing patterns of our synapses underwrite our consciousness, emotions and behavior. The simple act of taking a step forward, experiencing a fleeting twinge of regret, recalling an incident from the morning commute or tasting a doughnut requires millions of simultaneous and precise synaptic firing events throughout the brain and peripheral nervous system.
Even a moment's consideration of the total number of synapses in the typical human brain adds up to instant regard for that organ's complexity. Coupling neuroscientists' ballpark estimate of 200 billion neurons in a healthy adult brain with the fact that any single neuron may share synaptic contacts with as few as one, or as many as 1 million, other neurons (the median is somewhere in the vicinity of 10,000) suggests that your brain holds perhaps 2 quadrillion synapses — 10,000 times the number of stars in the Milky Way.
"The computing power of a human or animal brain is much, much higher than that of any computer," said Südhof. "A synapse is not just a relay station. It is not even like a computer chip, which is an immutable element. Every synapse is like a nanocomputer all by itself. The amount of neurotransmitter released, or even whether that release occurs at all, depends on that particular synapse's previous experience."
Much of a neuron can be visualized as a long, hollow cord whose outer surface conducts electrical impulses in one direction. At various points along this cordlike extension are bulbous nozzles known as presynaptic terminals, each one housing myriad tiny, balloon-like vesicles containing neurotransmitters and each one abutting a downstream (or postsynaptic) neuron. When an electrical impulse traveling along a neuron reaches one of these presynaptic terminals, calcium from outside the neuron floods in through channels that open temporarily, and a portion of the neurotransmitter-containing vesicles fuse with the surrounding bulb's outer membrane and spill their contents into the narrow gap separating the presynaptic terminal from the postsynaptic neuron's receiving end.
Südhof, along with other researchers worldwide, has identified integral protein components critical to the membrane fusion process. Südhof purified key protein constituents sticking out of the surfaces of neurotransmitter-containing vesicles, protruding from nearby presynaptic-terminal membranes, or bridging them. Then, using biochemical, genetic and physiological techniques, he elucidated the ways in which the interactions among these proteins contribute to carefully orchestrated membrane fusion: As a result, synaptic transmission is today one of the best-understood phenomena in neuroscience.
The proteins Südhof has focused on for close to three decades are disciplined specialists. They recruit vesicles, bring them into "docked" positions near the terminals, herd calcium channels to the terminal membrane, and, cued by calcium, interweave like two sides of a zipper and force the vesicles into such close contact with terminal membranes that they fuse with them and release neurotransmitters into the synaptic gap. Although these specialists perform defined roles at the synapses, similar proteins, discovered later by Südhof and others, play comparable roles in other biological processes ranging from hormone secretion to fertilization of an egg during conception to immune cells' defense against foreign invaders.
Südhof's accomplishments also earned him the 2013 Lasker Basic Medical Research Award.He is the Avram Goldstein Professor in the School of Medicine. He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the Institute of Medicine and the American Academy of Arts & Sciences and is a recipient of the 2010 Kavli Prize in neuroscience.--Stanford News Service