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Brains Behind the Institute

Thomas Südhof

Thomas Südhof

Avram Goldstein Professor of molecular and cellular physiology

I think the brain is fascinating, but I also think how other parts of the body function are fascinating, too; the brain is just an extension of the body.

In graduate school, I trained as a biophysicist, and as a postdoctoral student, I worked on cholesterol metabolism. I only switched to studying neuroscience when I started my own lab. At that point in time, science offered an excellent description of how neurons in the brain communicate with each other. But there was nothing known about the actual mechanisms that enable neurons in the brain to communicate. So, I began pursuing an answer to this question because it seemed fundamental to understanding how the brain functions.

Currently, I'm working on another key question: how neurons in our brains know which other neurons to communicate with, and what kind of messages to send. Our findings have implications for neuropsychiatric disorders and fundamental questions around memory—science currently doesn't really understand any disorder of the brain at any reasonable level. This is especially true for schizophrenia and autism, in which the brain functions quite well, but key elements of how it works are not quite right.

To fully understand and help solve these challenges, it's key for us as scientists, especially the next generation, to explore intellectually—not in our experiments, but in our free time, as many things as we possibly can, to attend seminars that have nothing to do with what we want to do or what we're working on. This receptiveness to ideas and knowledge across the disciplines is more important than any specific skill, although it's of course important to be technically competent in experiments and in communication. Success as a scientist means generating new ideas that haven't been taught before. And to accomplish this, it's key to be open and generally curious.

Photo: Avery Krieger

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