May-Britt and Edvard Moser grew up in rural Norway, and went to a high school in a town with Dirty Dancing-style morality. Dancing? Drinking? The devil’s work.
The pair got to know each other in university, got married as undergrads, had children, and went on to force their way to the forefront of neuroscience. They saw the world and even drank beer. They met and worked for self-described “hardcore neuroscientist” John O’Keefe. They won the Nobel Prize for medicine together.
That last bit happened today, October 6, 2014.
The work awarded started in 1971, when O’Keefe worked on research that changed our understanding of how rats know where they are in the world. He found so-called place cells, which lit up when the rat found itself in a particular place.
In 2005, the Mosers, who did their post-graduate work with O’Keefe, demonstrated that there are grid cells in rats’ brains that provide longitudinal and latitudinal information. Those cells make an ongoing map of the world, complete with intuitive coordinate systems and internal frameworks.
The same cells exist in primate brains. They also happen to be in an area of the brain that takes a lot of damage in early Alzheimer’s, which provides a key clue as to why the disease’s sufferers often find themselves lost.
O’Keefe received his doctorate in physiological psychology from Montreal’s McGill University in 1967, a detail the Canadian press is happy to mention as our tie to the research.
His take on his own research is deeply interesting. He has the too-rare ability to understand technical research in a human and philosophical context. You can listen to O’Keefe talk about internal brain GPS from a Kantian perspective. As the Royal Institute put it, Kant believed that “our concept of space was not derived from sensations arising from our interaction with the physical world, but instead represented the a priori basis for our perception of the world in the first place,” and the Nobel prize-winning research shows how right he was.
[image via Faculty of Medicine NTNU/Flickr]