For those interested in scientific research, the Nobel Prize is an esteemed award, recognizing one’s work and dedication. However, many student researchers are often disillusioned about the kind of work that is put in to receive such high praise. More often than not, these individuals did not suddenly discover something new. To be sure, their findings are the fruits of years of research and passion in the field of science. As a great model of dedication, recent Nobel laureate Thomas Südhof provided incredible insight to our understanding of the human brain communication. But, once again, his work was in the basic-science field, on a topic which, in fact, we learn about in our introductory neuroscience courses. In this brief article, I will outline the most recent findings from Dr. Südhof’s lab in hopes of showing aspiring researchers that continued diligence and passion for learning is most important.
Neurons communicate with each other by a signaling process mediated by what is known as action potentials. Changes in concentration and electrical gradients cause the action potentials to fire down the neuron, until it reaches the synaptic bouton. It is here that one neuron forms a synapse with another neuron. The synapse is the site at which communication is happening. But, for the most part, two neurons are not physically connected, so how does communication happen? In a process called neurotransmission, when the action potential reaches the end of the neuron, an influx of Ca2+ ions cause vesicles to release certain chemicals out of the neuron, as a signal to the next. These vesicles are like little packets of neurotransmitter chemicals. Herein lies the question that Dr. Südhof sought to illuminate: mechanistically, how do these vesicles actually release the chemicals?