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A Nobel mind map

By Mike, 10 October 2014

People in a shopping centre

Where am I? Your brain has place cells and grid cells that give you an idea of where you are in a room.
Image: ©iStock.com/samxmeg

It’s three in the morning. Nature calls. You stagger from your bed, squinting in the darkness as you blindly weave your way past a bookshelf, around the glass cabinet, and down the corridor into the smallest room in the house. Not only do the scientists John O’Keefe, May-Britt Moser and Edvard Moser understand how your brain managed this – they earned themselves a Nobel Prize in the process.

Knowing precisely where your body sits in an environment is a neat trick that has less to do with your eyes than you might think. In 1971, John found that nerve cells in the hippocampus region of a rat’s brain fired up when the rat moved through a specific spot in a room. Moving the rat to other spots made other, similar nerve cells work harder. John realised these so-called place cells worked like a tiny map.

Nearly 35 years later, May-Britt and Edvard found another type of nerve cell in a strip of tissue connecting the hippocampus to other parts of the brain. Described as grid cells (due to the pattern of their activation), these nerves seemed to act like a coordinate system.

Together, these cells provide you with a mental map and a coordinate system that tells the rest of your brain where your body is in relation to its surroundings. This way you’re able to move around even while you’re unable to see, hear, or smell anything.

For their research, John, May-Britt and Edvard were awarded the 2014 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

Many neurological conditions, such as Alzheimer’s disease, can dramatically affect the hippocampus region. Knowing more about these cells and how they work can provide new insights and possibly new treatments for those who suffer spatial memory loss.

More information

The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2014.

This article first appeared in Science by Email. Get your free weekly science news by subscribing here.

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