With our smartphones with their apps and GPS locators, many of us may have forgotten how to use old fashioned maps. But did you know our brains have their own internal GPS?
Three scientists, including a husband-and-wife team, were awarded the Nobel Prize in medicine for discovering “an inner GPS in the brain” that enables virtually all creatures to navigate their surroundings.
The three winners of the world’s most coveted medical research prize are John O’Keefe, who holds both U.S. and British citizenship and is director of the Sainsbury Wellcome Center in Neural Circuits and Behavior at University College London; May-Britt Moser, a professor of neuroscience at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology; and Edward I. Moser of the same university.
All worked on different components of the same problem: how we “orient ourselves in space” and navigate.
O’Keefe discovered the first component of this system in 1971. He found that when he placed rats in certain parts of a room different cells in the brain’s hippocampus – which is believed to be important in functions related to space and memory -- were always activated. He theorized that these areas that he called “place cells” formed a map of the room.
In 2005, the Mosers discovered a second crucial component of the brain’s positioning system by identifying other nerve cells that permit coordination and positioning, and calling them grid cells. While mapping connections to the hippocampus in rats moving about a room in a laboratory, “they discovered an astonishing pattern of activity in a nearby part of the brain called the entorhinal cortex,” the Nobel committee said.
When the rat passed multiple locations, the cells formed a hexagonal grid. Each cell activated in unique spatial patterns. Their research showed “how both ‘place’ and ‘grid’ cells make it possible to determine position and to navigate,” the committee said.
Evidence that place and grid cells exist in humans comes from recent studies using brain imaging techniques and from patients who have undergone neurosurgery. The findings may eventually lead to a better understanding of the spatial losses that occur in Alzheimer’s and other neurological diseases. The hippocampus and entorhinal cortex are often damaged in initial stages of Alzheimer’s, with affected individuals losing their way and failing to recognize the environment.
“The cells we have found in the brain are in exactly the same area that is usually first affected by Alzheimer’s disease,” Edward Moser said. Unraveling the mystery of why such damage occurs might someday lead to prevention and treatment of Alzheimer’s, but that research is for other scientists to carry out, he added.
The findings also open new avenues for understanding cognitive processes like memory, thinking and planning, the Nobel committee said.
And all applicable to understanding the wayfinding process. Always interesting to understand the how and why behind cognition.
I am always interested in learning how to improve the wayfinding process and I’d love your feedback! If you have any comments or questions please send me an email or give me a call.