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Feature: Thomas C. Sudhof

Article by Sucharita Desu

The term “neurotransmitter” may sound familiar to you; it is the name of our newsletter! Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers that allow neurons to communicate with each other and other muscles and glands in the body. There are many types of neurotransmitters with ranging effects. Now the question is, how are chemicals transported?

The short answer to that question would be that neurotransmitters are carried in little sacs from one neuron to the next. However, there’s a lot more detail to it than that, so let’s begin with who discovered the movement.

Thomas Christian Südhof is a German-American neuroscientist born in December 1955. In 1982, he received his medical degree from the University of Goettingen. He later went to complete his Doctorate in Neurochemistry from Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry where he investigated the release of hormones from cells of adrenal glands. Following this, he completed his post-doctoral studies at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, investigating low density lipoprotein receptors involved in cholesterol metabolism.

In 1986, Südhof started working as an investigator at both Texas Southwestern and Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Eventually, his lab moved to Stanford University in 2008. As a researcher, he mainly focuses on presynaptic neurons that release signaling chemicals, neurotransmitters, into the synapse*.

More specifically, Thomas C. Südhof discovered the key molecular components and mechanisms that form the foundation of chemicals signaling in neurons. He also helped bring understanding to cellular mechanisms underlying neurological conditions, including autism, schizophrenia, and Alzheimer’s disease.

Furthermore, Südhof explained the process by which synaptic vesicles filled with neurotransmitters fuse with neuronal membranes and undergo exocytosis**. He also found that specific interactions between proteins, like Munc18-1 and SNARE proteins, along with a molecular complex based on the proteins RIM and Munc13 are needed for synaptic vesicle fusion. In addition, he described a process where calcium triggers vesicle function and exocytosis by binding to synaptic vesicle proteins known as synaptotagmins.

Moreover, Südhof identified presynaptic and postsynaptic proteins called neurexins and neuroligins, respectively. These proteins associate with one another and form a physical connections around the synaptic cleft***. He also investigated mutations in these proteins, linking them with neurological conditions like autism.

For his contributions to science, Thomas C. Südhof received a Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 2013 (along with James E. Rothman and Randy W. Schekman), the Kavli Prize in Neuroscience in 20120 (along with Rothman), and the Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award in 2013. He was also elected into the National Academy of Sciences in 2002 and joined the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2010.


*Synapse is the name for the space/junction between two neurons. It may also refer to the connecting point of neurons with other cells, such as muscle cells and glands.

**Exocytosis is the release of something from inside a cell to outside the cell. In this case, it refers to the release of neurotransmitters into the extracellular environment.

***The synaptic cleft is the gap between two cells at a synapse.

To learn more about Südhof and his research, it is highly recommended that you check out these links:

For more about neurotransmitters, check out the following links:

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