May-Britt and Edvard
Laureates of the 2006 Liliane Bettencourt Prize for Life Sciences
Kavli Institute for Systems Neuroscience, Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Trondheim
Equilateral Triangles as Units of Our Neural Maps
How do we remember places we have been to? Edvard and May-Britt Moser revolutionize our understanding of spatial memory and build new roads for exploring cognition and behavior.
The brain is still mostly a black box, but May-Britt and Edvard Moser have opened a large window to see what is inside. The partners’ research focuses on memory, in all its various manifestations. As directors of the Centre for the Biology of Memory in Norway, they supervised the development of new methods for probing how brains encode, store and remember information.
In 2005, their research in the rat's brain led to a groundbreaking discovery: the grid cells, which work like an internal GPS system. They are neurons that have since been observed in several mammal species, including human beings and that sit in a thin tissue in the brain called the entorhinal cortex. As the animal moves freely around a place it knows, its grid cells activate and draw a map made up of equilateral triangles, which are assembled into hexagons. The research group led by the Mosers demonstrated the phenomenon using single-neuron recording which showed a localized mark on a computer screen each time an individual neuron activated. Grid cells only light up when the animal reaches the spatial borders of its predetermined neuronal triangles.
Those neurons are especially interesting since the regular patterning of the grid is not in any way related to the structure of the environment or to the sensory information that is available for the animal. On the contrary, the abstract spatial structure built within the brain by grid cells seems to be imposed onto the environment.
The Mosers continue to explore how grid cells work, how they are born and how they interact with other types of neurons that also specialize in spatial localization. The partners are also interested in how the different types of memories function. They lead the research of the Centre for the Biology of Memory towards discoveries that could radically transform the understanding of the roots of behavior and cognition in mammals.
May-Britt and Edvard Moser married in 1985, when they were still students at the University of Oslo. Both were deeply enthusiastic about researching the intersection of behavior and physiology and they convinced Per Oskar Andersen, a renowned neurophysiologist, to take them as graduate students in his laboratory. They followed with a short postdoctoral internship with John O'Keefe, where they learned the methods for studying navigation in space in the brain and for recording individual neurons. Dr. O'Keefe, neuroscientist at the University College in London, had discovered neurons from the hippocampus that he named place cells. Those neurons light up when the animal moves past a specific place.
Since the creation of their laboratory in Trondheim in 1996, the Mosers have been aiming towards understanding how place cells interact with the other brain cells and especially with the other neurons that also encode space localization. Their groundbreaking discovery of grid cells has helped them decipher not only the way space localization works but also general mechanisms of the brain and especially in the cortex.
The Mosers shared the Nobel Prize with John O'Keefe in 2014 "for their discoveries of cells that constitute a positioning system in the brain".
Applications could soon be developed, especially for early diagnosis of neurodegenerative diseases. Indeed, the entorhinal cortex, which is home to the grid cells, shows lesions at a very early stage in some Alzheimer's disease patients.
- 1995Ph.Ds in Neurophysiology, University of Oslo (Norway)
- 1996Associate Professors in Biological Psychology, Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Trondheim (Norway)
- 1999Prize for Young Scientists, Royal Norwegian Academy for Sciences and Letters
- 2002Founding Directors of the Centre for the Biology of Memory, Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Trondheim (Norway)
- 2005W. Alden Spencer Award, College of Physicians and Surgeons of Columbia University (USA)
- 2006Betty and David Koetser Award for Brain Research, University of Zurich (Switzerland)
- 2006Liliane Bettencourt Prize for Life Sciences, Bettencourt Schueller Foundation
- 2007Director (Edvard) and Co-director (May-Britt), Kavli Institute for Systems Neuroscience, Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Trondheim (Norway)
- 2008Eric K. Fernström’s Great Nordic Prize, Fernström Foundation, University of Lund (Sweden)
- 2011Louis-Jeantet Prize for Medicine (Switzerland)
- 2011Anders Jahre Award, University of Oslo (Norway)
- 2012Perl-UNC Neuroscience Prize (USA)
- 2013Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize (USA)
- 2014Karl Spencer Lashley Award (USA)
- 2014Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine (Sweden)