By Shaun Heasley, October 9, 2013
One of three recipients of this year’s Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine is a neuroscientist whose research is shedding light on autism.
Thomas Südhof of Stanford University will share this year’s prize with fellow-American scientists James Rothman and Randy Schekman. The trio are being honored “for their discoveries of machinery regulating vesicle traffic, a major transport system in our cells,” the Nobel Assembly at Sweden’s Karolinska Institute said this week.
The scientists — who conducted their work separately — will split the roughly $1.2 million prize for their research on how cells transport hormones and other important substances.
“Through their discoveries, Rothman, Schekman and Südhof have revealed the exquisitely precise control system for the transport and delivery of cellular cargo. Disturbances in this system have deleterious effects and contribute to conditions such as neurological diseases, diabetes and immunological disorders,” the Nobel Assembly said in a statement.
Südhof’s work focuses on how neurons in the brain communicate with each other through junction points known as synapses.
In 2009, Südhof published research showing that mice with a gene associated with autism had altered synapses that changed their behavior, with the animals exhibiting excessive grooming and impaired nest building, for example.
“The brain works by neurons communicating via synapses,” Südhof said in a Stanford announcement about the Nobel Prize. “We’d like to understand how synapse communication leads to learning on a larger scale. How are the specific connections established? How do they form? And what happens in schizophrenia and autism when these connections are compromised?”