The 2016 Nobel prize for physiology and medicine was recently awarded to three doctors researching the part of the brain that helps people identify where they are in 3D space. “Where am I” has been a long held question in both science and philosophy and the ability to self-identify and self-locate in space is complex.
This research was started over 30 years ago by John O’Keefe. O’Keefe noticed that as rats moved about a room, certain areas in the hippocampus seemed to have a pattern of firing depending on where the rat was in the room. O’Keefe identified that the brain was reliably firing in relationship to the rat’s specific location. The brain had, a sort of map that it was using to identify where the rat was. O’Keefe called these neurons “place cells”. These places cells were researched some over the years but not accepted in the mainstream of modern science, in fact, like many scientific discoveries that are later lauded, this discovery was scoffed at by O’Keefe’s peers.
Following up in a similar line of research the husband and wife team of Evard and Mary-Britt Moser published a paper in 2006 that found “grid cells”. These grid cells help the brain to create a hexagonal (full 3D) map of where the person is in a more complex environment. Add the “grid cells” to the “place cells” and now we have a much more robust understanding of the neurological mechanisms of proprioception and understanding how we move through space, navigate our way through life, remember where we’ve been and how to get where we’re going.
Francesa Sargolini a cognitive neuroscientist at Aix-Marseille University in France, worked with the Mosers when she was a postdoc. The lab had a “wonderful, stimulating atmosphere,” Sargolini told The Scientist. Discoveries made by O’Keefe and the Mosers have helped researchers understand “how the brain computes . . . information to make a representation of spaces, so we can use that information to move around in the environment and do what we do every day,”
These cells are found in two primary areas of the brain, the hippocampus and the entorhinal cortex. These areas are neighbors in the brain and assumed to share information. There is hope that this discovery will lead to new avenues of research that help improve overall cognitive function including learning and memory. One area in which this would be especially powerful is in patients with Alzheimer’s.
Alzheimer’s patients have such severe memory loss that they are known to wander off and get lost. There has been damage seen in the hippocampus and entorhinal cortex in Alzheimer’s patients very early in the disease process. Understanding the mechanism and underlying cause leading to the destruction of this neural map “warehouse” may lead to advances in treating the disease itself.
It has been shown in research that novel activities such as changing the route driven to work daily can actually fight off cognitive decline associated with dementia and Alzheimer’s. There is a potential bridge and research opportunity here to see if the psychomotor and self-experiencing of the Network Wave in the spine and other such novel experiences that occur in the Reorganizational technologies actually leads to a more robust health of these cortexes potentially protecting the brain against Alzheimer’s.