Profiles of Leading Women Scientists on AcademiaNet – an initiative of the Robert Bosch Stiftung.
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Main areas of research: Neurosciences, the mechanism of spatial cognition, natural navigation systems, grid cells, speed cells, Alzheimer’s research
May-Britt Moser investigates how mammals orient themselves in space. Together with Edvard Moser she discovered previously unknown nerve cells in the brains of rats that act like a natural navigation system. These so-called grid cells lay out a virtual hexagonal coordinate grid over the perceived environment. Aided by this grid, the brain is able to calculate the position in space. The two researchers could thus for the first time demonstrate an abstract mental act taking place at the neural level. Further work led them to also identify so-called boundary cells, which become active when animals get close to obstacles and walls.
May-Britt and Edvard Moser’s work has illuminated key fundamentals of the orientation system found in rodents. The grid and boundary cells that they discovered are involved in an interaction with further cell types, including head direction cells and place cells that emit signals when an animal goes past known places and landmarks. Presumably the different cell types collaborate to create a kind of map of the spatial environment.
Their more recent work has led to the discovery of cells that indicate the speed an animal is travelling, the so-called speed cells. They found these by examining the brain activity of rats when they were moving at different speeds. As the speed increased, the speed cells showed greater activity.
May-Britt and Edvard Moser were awarded the 2014 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their discovery of grid cells. They shared the award with John O‘Keefe, who had identified the brain’s place cells. The research findings of May-Britt and Edvard Moser could lead to important advances in Alzheimer’s research because the areas of the brain dealing with orientation are the first ones impacted by Alzheimer’s disease. Patients initially lose their ability to orient themselves spatially. If scientists are able to understand on what neural basis spatial orientation occurs, new therapies based on that knowledge could be developed.