|A NOBEL WINNER|
October 11, 2000
RAY SUAREZ: The award this year went for discoveries about how messages
move around the nervous system and help us understand the functioning
of the brain. Three scientists will share the nearly $1 million prize.
One of them is with us now. Paul Greengard is a neuroscientist who heads
the laboratory of molecular and cellular neuroscience at the Rockefeller
University in New York. Also joining us is Dr. Steve Hyman, director
of the National Institute of Mental Health.
PAUL GREENGARD: Thank you very much.
RAY SUAREZ: How did you hear about the award?
PAUL GREENGARD: About ten minutes past five this morning, the secretary of the Nobel Committee called to inform me I had been one of the recipients of this year's Nobel Prize in medicine. It was about 20 minutes... apparently in Sweden they announce at 11:30 in the morning, which is 5:30 Eastern Standard time. So they called to let the recipients know in advance of the deluge of telephone calls that come after the announcement of the prize.
RAY SUAREZ: It's kind of tough. Who do you wake up at 5:00 in the morning to let them know?
PAUL GREENGARD: Well, that's what my wife and I said: "Who in the heck is calling on the telephone at this time in the morning."
RAY SUAREZ: You've been recognized for your work in studying how brain cells communicate with each other. Maybe you could walk a layman through what you've been recognized for, what you've been working on all these years.
PAUL GREENGARD: Well, yes, we've been interested in how those nerve cells talk to each other. And when one nerve cell releases a chemical, this chemical, which is called a neurotransmitter, then regulates the activities of a second nerve cell. And we've been studying the biochemical machinery, if you will, the various components of the factory that responds to this chemical signal with an appropriate response.
RAY SUAREZ: And the things that you've been trying to find out helped move us where in understanding how the brain works?
PAUL GREENGARD: Well, one of the... there are many of these neurotransmitters, about 100. So I can give you a specific example. I think the prize recognizes a broader area, but this specific example illustrates the point. There's a neurotransmitter called dopamine. And abnormalities in dopamine signaling are implicated in several major neurological and psychiatric disorders, including schizophrenia, Parkinson's Disease, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and drug abuse. And by elucidating the biochemical steps by which the dopamine produces its effects in its target neural cells, it's been possible to learn more about these diseases and to develop new targets for pharmaceutical industries to develop drugs that hopefully will have a better therapeutic action and fewer side effects.
RAY SUAREZ: One of your co- winners is Dr. Arvid Carlsson from Sweden. Tell us how his work meshes with yours. He also was working on dopamine, correct?
PAUL GREENGARD: That's correct, yes. Dr. Carlsson had obtained very clear evidence a number of years ago that dopamine was involved in abnormalities in schizophrenia and Parkinson's Disease, and the work we did was to show how the details... the details of how dopamine produces these effects -- in other words, what's wrong in these diseases and what can be con to correct them.
RAY SUAREZ: Dr. Hyman, the third winner is Erik Kandel, also working in New York. Is there a thread that runs through all three winners that sort of connects them intellectually and what they've been working on?
DR. STEVEN E. HYMAN: Well, I think there really is a thread. The important thing about all of these discoveries is they taught us more about how nerve cells communicate with each other. And Dr. Carlsson's work showed us what happens, for example, if the brain lacks dopamine or something good in the case of schizophrenia, when you block dopamine with medications. But Drs. Greengard and Kandel have really helped take science to a new level of understanding the brain's complexity. You know, one of the important things that the brain has to do is to convert short-term stimulation or short-term experience into long-term changes in brain function. That's how we have memories. That's how a lot of drugs work. And those kinds of processes go along in disease. And Dr. Greengard really focused on an important switch. He didn't use the word "phosphorylation," but that's a critical switch that's used by lots and lots of cells, including nerve cells to make changes long-term, more permanent. And then Dr. Kandel showed how these kinds of changes modify the synaptic connections, the connections between nerve cells. And memory really requires that the connections between nerve cells be altered. That is the pattern of communication will be changed in short-term memories, from minutes to hours, and in long- term memories, for years or maybe even permanently.
RAY SUAREZ: Reporter: So without this modification, every time something happened to you, it would be like the first time?
DR. STEVEN E. HYMAN: That's exactly right. Without these fundamental processes that would convert short-term experience into long-term change, we could literally learn nothing. In fact, the whole success of humanity, indeed all of mammals, depends on our ability to learn, to respond to new occurrences based on our prior experience.
RAY SUAREZ: So standing on the platform, cobbled together with decades of work by these three scientists, what do you push toward next with the knowledge they've helped us find?
DR. STEVEN E. HYMAN: Well, I hope that this knowledge in short order will help us understand some really terrible diseases and lead to better treatments. Dr. Greengard already mentioned schizophrenia, Parkinson's Disease. One could add manic-depressive illness, of course, drug addiction. These are in many ways diseases of signaling in the brain. These are diseases in which the normal communication between nerve cells goes awry and in which the wrong kinds of messages get laid down. By really helping us understand the nitty-gritty of the processes by which nerve cells change in response to experience, these scientists have given us molecular targets that are going to give us, I hope, the next generation of therapies for these kinds of diseases.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, Professor Greengard, are you still going into the lab full-time, burning the midnight oil?
PAUL GREENGARD: Well, yes, I am. It was a bit hard to do so today; there have been some interruptions. But I'm planning to get back there pretty soon.
RAY SUAREZ: And what are the kinds of things that you're working on? You've been rewarded for this body of work. But what's turning you on now and still getting you into the lab? What riddle do you have to solve?
PAUL GREENGARD: Well, it turns out that this neurotransmitter dopamine, not only dopamine, but many other chemicals or neurotransmitters interact with them -- all intersect on the same biochemical pathways. And it's turning out to be extremely complex, and at the same time, beautifully simple. All of these neurotransmitters converge on a certain kind of chemical reaction which Dr. Hyman mentioned called phosphorylation and dephosphorylation. And this then produces all kinds of very complicated intercellular physiological... excuse me, physiological changes in the properties of these nerve cells. And so there's beginning to be a kind of unified principle involved in how these nerve cells respond. And ironically, the more complex this story becomes, the more beautifully simple in the principles.
RAY SUAREZ: Reporter: I understand you've already decided what you're going to do with your one-third share of the Nobel Prize money.
PAUL GREENGARD: Yes.
RAY SUAREZ: Tell us about it.
PAUL GREENGARD: Well, I've decided to give it to Rockefeller University to establish a fund to provide an annual prize for an outstanding woman doing biomedical research.
RAY SUAREZ: And why that particular cause?
PAUL GREENGARD: Well, my mother died in childbirth. I never knew her. And it seemed a very nice way to honor her memory.
RAY SUAREZ: Are you starting to see more women at your side at an elite research institution like Rockefeller?
PAUL GREENGARD: Absolutely. There are real major changes now in the recognition of the talents of women, and in many excellent laboratories, over half of the students and post-docs are women. And I think as people move along in their academic careers, we're going to see a very large percentage of women in professorial positions.
RAY SUAREZ: And quickly, Dr. Hyman, are we going to see the practical effects of some of these discoveries quite soon?
DR. STEVEN E. HYMAN: Well, I think so. I think one of the wonderful things about these prizes, in some sense they're almost overdue because these scientists have been producing very, very important discoveries for a long time. And people are already exploiting them to find better drugs for schizophrenia, for Parkinson's Disease. And I think with the information coming out of the various Human Genome projects, we're only going to see progress accelerate.
RAY SUAREZ: Thanks a lot, Dr. Hyman, --
DR. STEVEN E. HYMAN: A pleasure.
RAY SUAREZ: -- and again, Professor Greengard, congratulations.
PAUL GREENGARD: Thank you very much.