The 2013 Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award went to two scientists for their discoveries concerning rapid neurotransmitter release, a process that underlies all of the brain's activities.
The Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation earlier this week announced Richard H. Scheller, PhD, of Genentech and Thomas C. Sudhof, MD, of Stanford University School of Medicine as recipients of one of their Lasker Awards, thought of as the “American Nobels.”
The billions of nerve cells in our brains allow us to savor chocolate, whack a baseball, and imagine traveling at the speed of light. Their exploits tell our hearts to quicken and make us feel as if those same hearts are breaking. Their messages give us eureka moments—and let us jump out of the bathtub in response.
A biological relay system achieves these feats. Neurotransmission kicks off with an electrical pulse that runs down a nerve cell, or neuron. When that signal reaches the tip, calcium enters the cell. In response, the neuron liberates chemical messengers—neurotransmitters—which travel to the next neuron and thus pass the baton.
Scheller and Sudhof identified and isolated many of this reaction's key elements, unraveled central aspects of its fundamental mechanism, and deciphered how cells govern it with extreme precision.
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter responsible for relaying messages that plan and control body movement. Not so easy to jump out of the bathtub without it. In Parkinson’s, dopamine-producing neurons degenerate, which leads to under- or over-stimulation of parts of the brain, resulting in rigidity or tremor, respectively.
While Scheller and Sudhof did not research Parkinson’s directly, their work on understanding the mechanics of brain activity is invaluable as we seek new therapies and approaches to treat brain disorders.