Thomas Südhof was awarded the 2013 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for discovery of a major transport system in cells. The crux of the transport system is bubble-like vesicles that carry cargo — hormones, neurotransmitters, cytokines, enzymes — that need to be delivered inside or outside the cell.
Südhof, studying neurotransmitters, discovered that calcium ions cause vesicles to bind to the outer membrane of the nerve cell and release their contents.
“What we have done is to try to understand better how one cell sends out the information to the next cell at the synapse and ideally also how it processes that information,” Südhof said in an interview on Nobelprize.com. “Our major contribution, I believe, was in figuring out the fundamental molecular processes that govern this ability of a nerve cell in all brains, in all cells, in all animals.”
Knowing how the connections are established between nerve cells has led to a greater understanding of what happens when they’re compromised, for instance, in cases of schizophrenia and autism. In a 2009 study, Südhof observed that deleting a particular gene associated with synapses in the brain in mice led to behavioral changes similar to symptoms of autism and schizophrenia (self-grooming, impaired nest-building activity, among others) in humans.
Südhof is the director of the Südhof Lab in the Department of Molecular and Cellular Physiology at Stanford University and the Avram Goldstein Professor in the School of Medicine at Stanford University.