It has been quite sometime since I drove through the Hebbal to KR Puram ring road. Recently, when I did, I was stuck half way. With the building of new flyovers, I couldn’t recognize where Hennur Cross was. Though a passer-by patiently explained to me the change in the routes, I simply couldn’t perceive a word of his. I smiled to myself thinking that the former route already coded in my brain needs to be re-run with the new route installation.
After all, I wasn’t wrong. While I was reading the recent Nobel prize winning discoveries, I felt awed for the discovery of the GPS systems in our brains just like our mobile phones and cars have. This fascinating discovery has fetched the 2014 Nobel prize in Physiology and medicine to three European scientists – Prof John O’Keefe, May-Britt Moser and Edvard Moser.
For eons, scientists have wondered how our brains are able to locate where we are and how we are able to navigate from one place to another. In 1971, Prof John O’Keefe of University College London, discovered a group of cells called ‘Place cells’ in the Hippocampus region of our brains. He studied how these cells behaved in rats with respect to the location of the animal. He concluded that when the rat was located at one particular area of the room, a corresponding set of place cells were activated. However, when the rat moved to another corner of the room, another set of place cells were activated. Unfortunately, his findings failed to get noticed then.
Later in 2005, May-Britt and Edvard Moser of Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim, studied the former findings of O’Keefe further. They discovered “grid cells” in the entorhinal cortex of rat, which worked in close association with the place cells in directing the animal to navigate from one corner of the room to another. This discovery marks an history in Neuroscience as similar grid cells and place cells have also been found in the human brains as well.
To explain with an example, remember a day when all of a sudden the red building located at the corner of a road where you usually take a turn, is demolished? You might have got confused if it is the right place where you need to take the turn. That explains it! Your brain’s grid cells and place cells make a route map in your brain for every route that you take physically, associating with prominent landmarks, like the red building. When one day, the red building goes missing, your brain’s GPS gets slightly disoriented for a while.
To explain it further, your grid cells and place cells help you to understand where you are positioned and help you to navigate with respect to the position of your destination. It is through the brain’s GPS that, if you happen to miss a particular lane, your brain can understand that you can take a parallel lane which would again connect to the missed lane through a cross lane.
This research also explains what patients of Alzheimer’s have it disordered in their brains. As more neurons that make the grid cells and place cells degenerate, the disease progresses, making them inefficient to find their way back home often.