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Autism Researcher Shares Nobel Prize

Thomas Südhof’s Nobel-winning work explores how brain cells communicate, with implications for treating autism and schizophrenia
October 08, 2013

Neurologist and autism researcher Thomas Südhof, of Stanford University School of Medicine, has won the 2013 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. He shares the honor with James Rothman and Randy Schekman, "for their discoveries of machinery regulating vesicle traffic, a major transport system in our cells," the Nobel Committee announced.

"On behalf of Autism Speaks, we are pleased to congratulate Dr. Südhof for this prestigious honor and everything he’s done in advancing our understanding of the brain chemistry of autism,” says Autism Speaks Chief Science Officer Rob Ring. “We have been honored to have Dr. Südhof as a collaborator in our funded research and a mentor to our young research fellows.”

Dr. Südhof received the award for his work exploring how neurons (brain nerve cells) communicate with one another across gaps called synapses. Although his work has focused on the details of how molecules interact on the cell membranes, the work is fundamental to understanding and treating autism and other disorders of brain development.

"The brain works by neurons communicating via synapses," Dr. Südhof says. "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?"

Dr. Südhof has spent 30 years prying loose the secrets of the synapse, the all-important junction where chemical messengers called neurotransmitters pass from one neuron to another. He identified proteins critical to the transport of neurotransmitters inside and between neurons. As a result, their transmission is one of the best-understood phenomena in neuroscience.

In 2009, Dr. Südhof published research describing how a gene implicated in autism alters mice's synapses and produces autism-like behaviors.

An Autism Speaks collaborator and fellowship mentor
Currently, he is collaborating on an Autism Speaks-funded research project aimed at finding a treatment for autism stemming from a mutation in the SHANK3 gene. (Read more about this project here.)

Dr. Südhof is also serving as an advisor to Autism Speaks Meixner Postdoctoral Fellow Garret Anderson. Dr. Anderson is exploring the role of another autism-linked gene – CNTNAP2 – in neuron development and neurotransmission. This work has the potential to advance the development of future treatments for autism associated with this genetic mutation, as well as advancing understanding of other autism-linked genes. (More about this research project here.)

"There is a tremendous gap between the need to understand diseases that affect the brain and the understanding that we have,” Dr. Südhof says. “Not because of lack of effort, but because the problem is so daunting. I do think that our work will contribute a little to the task, which is enormous. I am convinced that it will eventually lead to therapies." 

Editor's note: While. Dr. Südhof uses the word "disease" to refer to developmental disorders of the brain, Autism Speaks supports all those on the autism spectrum, including those who fully embrace their neurodiversity.