The software GPS
February 4, 2015 9:36 AM   Subscribe

The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded for discovering how your brain creates a map of the space surrounding you, and how you navigate your way through a complex environment.

John O'Keefe won half of the prize for his decades of work, starting in 1971, in characterizing place cells in the hippocampus. As an animal explores an environment, a place cells fires for a unique spot in that environment. Together, place cells form a cognitive map of space.

O'Keefe shared the prize with May-Britt Moser and Edvard Moser, a pair of scientists whose lab first described grid cells in the entorhinal cortex in 2004. Grid cells are a more complex version of place cell: a grid cell fires repeatedly for a tessellating grid of locations in an environment. Head-direction cells have also been described (and they do what you think they do).

Together, the grid cells of the entorhinal cortex and the place cells of the hippocampus represent the notion of space in the brain. But how do place cells form? Because the entorhinal cortex leads to the hippocampus, it is widely thought that individual place cells maps arise as a transformation of the repeating information coming from the grid cells.

Bonus feature: the neuron-clad dress that May-Britt Moser wore to the prize ceremony arrived as a cold call from science-educated fashion designer Matthew Hubble: "How were we supposed to get the attention of a Nobel Laureate who undoubtedly has the most horrendous inbox ever? It needed to be someone close to her so we copied the email to her husband, Edvard Moser another winner of the Nobel Prize! But it worked and eight hours later I awoke to the most wonderful reply: “I would be thrilled to wear it at the Nobel Prize award ceremony!” (previously).
posted by Dashy (8 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
Tetrahedral grid!
posted by ethansr at 9:45 AM on February 4, 2015

how your brain creates a map of the space surrounding you, and how you navigate your way through a complex environment.

Google maps?
posted by Drinky Die at 9:53 AM on February 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

How do the cells know when to fire?

I wonder if they still fire when the Rat is unconscious?
posted by mary8nne at 9:56 AM on February 4, 2015

That dress! How cool!
posted by resurrexit at 11:56 AM on February 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

It would be every so awesome if my place cells actually worked right. I get lost regularly in both real and virtual environments.

Non-neurotypical FTW?
posted by Samizdata at 1:01 PM on February 4, 2015

Wetware GPS?
posted by jjwiseman at 2:12 PM on February 4, 2015 [2 favorites]

Just anecdotally, it does seem to me that that there are 10* types of people -- those who can navigate, with or without google maps, and a smaller set who just can't find their way out of the driveway.

The hard part would be asking an experimental animal "are you lost?" to identify -which- brains we need to focus on, but some behavioralist will figure that out sometime I'm sure.

*binary, of course.
posted by Dashy at 2:35 PM on February 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

I wonder if they still fire when the Rat is unconscious?

Firing seems to require some sensory input, though it looks like it doesn't necessarily have to be visual.

One of the interesting implications hinted at in the links is the possibility that this explains why early dementia/mild cognitive impairment often starts with trouble with orienting oneself, even in familiar places--that is, it's not necessarily that what we usually think of as the "memory" of the place ("this is my house that I've lived in for 25 years") is lost, but the ability to say "and the bedroom is down the hall and to the right" (or, rather, the hippocampus's ability to connect "down the hall and to the right" to the existing "bedroom" visual memory) is gone.
posted by kagredon at 10:49 AM on February 11, 2015

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