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Have you ever wondered how do we perceive the space around us? Like how do we know where we need to be in order to exist in that space? For example, imagine you’re at home and you want to get to the kitchen. Close your eyes and try it. I can almost guarantee that you can get there without seeing given that you’ve been living there for a while. This is what Professor May Britt-Moser had discovered and i.e, the cells responsible for the positioning in the human body.

Viral labelling of neurons on the same day of embryonic development (Source: nobelprize.rog)

Who is May Britt-Moser?

Professor May Britt-Moser is an exceptional neuroscientist from the country of Norway who has spent her entire life looking for answers to the questions about the cellular basis of our behavior. During her early education, she did not really receive the best grades but she always remained curious. This also meant that she was not very committed to a specific subject until she came across psychology. When she met her ex-husband, they both embarked on a journey where they wanted to understand how the brain works.

Soon, they would work on hyperactivity in rats with respect to the behavioral theory which is where they decided to further their research into the cellular aspects of it. That came with its own challenges where the supervisor they wanted to work with would only take them if they created their own water maze (behavioral neuroscience experiment). This is where they managed to persevere and land their own projects!

Physiological basis of cognitive functions

When they finally joined the lab of Prof. John O’Keefe, this is where they began their work on learning the basis of positioning. Prof O’ Keefe had already established that there is a possibility that there is a cellular basis for positioning in our brain. This is because he noticed that whenever the rat was in certain places in the room, certain areas of the brain lit up. he called them ‘place cells‘ as they were forming a map of the room.

They finally performed an experiment where electrodes were attached to a rat’s brain and then they mapped the spots where the rat was when each neuron fired. This is how they observed the rat’s brain at work! They finally narrowed down the source of the signals they were getting to the entorhinal cortex in the hippocampus of the brain. Their brains created a hexagonal grid or rather a mental map of the place that they were in. They finally called the cells ‘GRID CELLS’ for which she won the award in conjunction with Professor John O’ Keefe and Professor Edvard Moser.

The neuronal firing of grid cells in rats. Red indicates high activity and blue indicates no activity. (Source: nobelprize.org)

Impact of the discovery

The impact of the discovery is huge because they finally cracked the question as to how we perceive our environment or rather our surroundings. It also gave proof of the fact that behavioral patterns have a strong cellular basis and this can be a good place to connect cognitive neuroscience with cellular neuroscience. It gave us proof that these things are hard-wired in our brain and in this case stored in the form of 125-millisecond bites!

References

May Britt-Moser (2020). Retrieved from https://www.nobelprize.org/womenwhochangedscience/stories/may-britt-moser

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