The "Brain's GPS" and the Iterative Process of Discovery

Drs. May-Britt and Edvard I. Moser are newly minted Nobel laureates along with their mentor Dr. John O’Keefe. The committee honored them for their discovery of the specific cells, now known as “grid cells,” that are responsible for representing the three-dimensional map that the brain makes as it travels through a space.

But the Mosers didn’t set out to find these cells. Instead, they were working to build on an earlier discovery of O’Keefe’s – the so-called “place cells,” which are specific cells that are tied to a particular location:

The Mosers wanted to find how information was flowing to the place cells, whether it was going from one area of the hippocampus to another. But even after they inactivated sections of this brain area, the place cells still functioned. So it seemed that information was flowing in from the nearby brain area, the entorhinal cortex.

“We didn’t immediately find the grid cells,” Dr. Edvard Moser said. At first they noticed cells that would emit a signal every time a rat went to a particular spot, and they thought that perhaps this was something like the place cells in the hippocampus that are tied to locations in the outside world. But gradually they learned that what they were seeing was a cell that tracked the rat’s movement in the same way, no matter where the rat was. The cell was not responding to some external mark, it was keeping track of how the rat moved. And when they gave the rats enough room, a very regular pattern emerged.

“The first thing was that we thought there was something wrong with the equipment,” Dr. Edvard Moser said.

“I thought, ‘Is this a bug?’ ” Dr. May-Britt Moser said.

We often ask one another what dent we hope to be remembered for making; but it seems a constant of the human condition that when you ask one question, you usually end up answering an entirely different one in the course of your search. It is useful to remember, as we each muddle through seeking what we want most deeply, that happy accidents can lead to great things as well.


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