For a person to think, act, or feel, the neurons in a person’s brain must communicate continuously, rapidly, and repeatedly. This communication occurs at synapses, specialized junctions between neurons that transfer and compute information on a millisecond timescale. By forming synapses with each other, neurons are organized into vast overlapping neural circuits.
As intercellular junctions, synapses are asymmetric with a presynaptic terminal that emits a transmitter signal and a postsynaptic cell that receives this signal. Synapses differ in properties and exhibit distinct types of plasticity, enabling fast information processing as well as learning and memory. Synapses are the most vulnerable component of the brain whose dysfunction initiates multifarious brain disorders. Despite their importance, however, synapses are poorly understood beyond basic principles.
Thomas Südhof’s laboratory studies how synapses form in the brain and how their properties are specified, which together organize neural circuits. Moreover, the Südhof laboratory examines how synapses become dysfunctional in neurodegenerative and neuropsychiatric disorders to pave the way for better therapies.