Stanford molecular neuroscientist Tom Südhof, MD, has been named a winner of the 2013 Lasker Basic Medical Research Award. The prize, often referred to as "the American Nobel," is given yearly by the New York City-based Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation to honor visionaries whose insight and perseverance have led to dramatic advances with practical medical potential.
In a news release that went public today, I tried to capture in very few words a glimmer of the immense importance of Südhof's nearly three decades’ worth of unrelenting, focused work:
Südhof has helped to pry loose the secrets of the synapse, the all-important junction where information... is passed from one [nerve cell] 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.
Nobody's managed to live long enough yet to count all the synapses in a typical adult human brain, but neuroscientists' best guesses put that number at something like 2 quadrillion - 10,000 times as many as the number of stars in the Milky Way. (Nobody's counted those, either, so plenty of wiggle room there.)
On top of which, Südhof told me, the computing power of a human or animal brain is much, much higher than that of any computer: "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."
It adds up to astounding complexity. In fact, it has been said that the human brain is the most complex entity in the whole Universe. (Of course, this comment was dictated by a human brain.)
Südhof will share the prize’s $250,000 honorarium with co-winner and former Stanford scientist Richard Scheller, PhD, now executive vice president for research and early development at South San Francisco-headquartered Genentech Inc. (Scheller’s Lasker-winning research was performed at Stanford, too.)
Previously: Revealed: The likely role of Parkinson's protein in the healthy brain, Nervous breakdown: Preventing demolition of faulty proteins counters neurodegeneration in lab mice and Key Parkinson's-disease-associated molecule's function identified
Photo by Steve Fisch