Welcome back to your weekly Wednesday Open Reading Frame! I’m sneaking it in just under the wire tonight, but it’s still Wednesday everywhere west of NYC, so I say we count it. Fair? Fair. This week’s ORF concerns the work of the recipients of the 2014 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.
Last week was a great week for neuroscience. We woke up last Monday (at least, on this side of the pond!) to the news that Dr. John O’Keefe, of University College London, and Drs. May-Britt and Edvard Moser, co-directors of the Kavli Institute at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, had been awarded the 2014 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. According to the awarding committee’s press release, these three exemplary neuroscientists “have solved a problem that has occupied philosophers and scientists for centuries – how does the brain create a map of the space surrounding us and how can we navigate our way through a complex environment?”
Over forty years ago, Dr. O’Keefe identified place-sensitive cells in a freely-moving rat’s hippocampus – that portion of the brain that plays a critical role in memory formation. Ten years ago, the Drs. Moser discovered that not only could the brain encode general place information, it could also apply a coordinate system to its surroundings to aid in navigation – the “grid cell” circuitry.
While the Nobel Prize was awarded specifically for discovery of the components of the rodent spatial navigation system, the principles of this system have since been extrapolated to humans, and are furthered by studies of how we, as humans, encode the emotional valence of a space. In this article from last December – which happens to have been published in a personal favorite science magazine, Nautilus – former neuroscientist-turned-freelance neuroscience writer Moheb Costandi breaks down the discovery of the rodent brain’s spatial navigation system, and explores its human correlates. This article may be a little older, but it’s nonetheless an excellent read for those who want to dig a little deeper into the history and context of the Nobel awardees’ work.
Costandi also writes the Neurophilosophy blog for the UK’s The Guardian.
If you’d like to check out the original articles that merited the Nobel Prize, you can check them out at the links below. Both are (unfortunately) behind paywalls. Sounds like a great opportunity to make a friend who has access to a university library!
The earliest description of place cells, from
O’Keefe J and Dostrovsky J. The hippocampus as a spatial map. Preliminary evidence from unit activity in the freely-moving rat. Brain Res 34:171-175 (1971).
The first description of grid cells, from
Hafting T, Fyhn M, Molden S, Moser M and Moser E. Microstructure of a spatial map in the entorhinal cortex. Nature 436:801-806 (2005).