GPS system of brain- The Nobel Prize 2014 in Physiology or Medicine

Karolinska Institute [Sweden] has chosen the Year 2014 Nobel Prize award in Physiology/Medicine to be awarded to a pair of researchers from Norway [May-Britt Moser and Edvard I. Moser] and John O’Keefe an American born British researcher. The Columbia University’s Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize was also awarded to this trio last year 2013. These scientists solved a riddle which had puzzled researchers for over centuries-how does ones brain generate a mental map of surrounding space and how is such map used to navigate in an environment or how can one navigate his/her way through a compound environment?

May-Brit-Moser

Understanding the mechanisms behind the extraction and representation of environmental signals by the brain is one of the hot and emerging areas of neuroscience. The fundamental principles that govern our cognition and navigation are still to be fully understood. Most of us when new to any area often use GPS for locating the places. In an analogous fashion brain uses GPS system to help us and other organisms to navigate from place to place. But how exactly does our brain accomplish such smart-phone kind of activity was for the first time deduced/elaborated by the efforts of the team mentioned above.

This geo-positioning system of our brain [which actually uses some distinct cells for cognitive functions] stores evidence from every place we visit or happen to be at any point of time and then retrieves the same information from memory to help us navigate or pilot in the 3D world.

The beginning of this miraculous discovery started when Dr. O’Keefe found that certain nerve cells of the hippocampus region of brain of a rat stored information that is visible and or invisible. Such cells were called as “place cells’’ and abet navigation system by backing up the seen as well as unseen data from various environments. Such piling up of inner maps is actually the soul or library of the navigational system of our brains.

The vital add up to this finding was the discovery of “grid cells” by Mosers in the year 2005 in the entorhinal cortex of the brain. In fact “grid cells” are in blood-relation with “place cells” and the functions of navigation system are distributed among them. “Place cells” act as a tape recorder while “grid cells” decode that message to allow coordination and positioning for the system. It is like opening the application HERE Maps or setting up the destination in a HERE Drive application on a windows phone and in smooth way you steer to your target location. Grid cells and place cells thus seem to pile up spatial mental maps of the environment and then exactly compute the path to be followed.

This Nobel Prize highlights the importance of Brain-Maps in navigation system. Since Alzheimer’s patients suffer from the navigation difficulty in their environment, more research might really help in a noble cause to treat such patients in near future.

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