Found the brain’s GPS

The Centre for the Biology of Memory (CBM) at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) was among the initial 13 SFF centres established. After ten years, its activities as an SFF centre are now drawing to a close.

The story of CBM is a research success story. In the late 1990s, Professors May-Britt and Edvard Moser were working with a few research fellows in a former bomb shelter at NTNU, studying rats. Today they are housed in a top-modern research centre to the tune of NOK 80 million. Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg recently undertook the official opening of the centre.

Photo: NTNU Grid cells (Photo: NTNU)

CBM is the workplace for some 80 researchers from 26 countries and is widely recognised as one of the world’s leading centres for basic research in the neurosciences. Researchers at the centre have made discoveries of major significance to understanding how the brain functions.

What made this possible?

“The SFF centre scheme is absolutely fantastic, and it was without a doubt critical for us. We would not have had the opportunity to conduct independent research and pursue our own ideas without the help of SFF status and funding. That is what has given results,” asserts Professor Edvard Moser, who is the director of the centre. His wife Professor May-Britt Moser is the co-director.

Few funding sources

Basic research in the medical sciences has a major problem: funding sources are few and far between.

The pharmaceutical industry and the regional health authorities want research results that have clear applications. Patient organisations, too, award funding to applied research almost exclusively. Although both professors have received substantial European funding, particularly from the European Research Council (ERC), Edvard Moser maintains that the SFF funding has meant the most.

“The funding enabled us to recruit researchers and procure a laboratory and equipment. Moreover, it enabled us to formalise our international cooperation. Our level of activity increased dramatically, and results were not far behind,” says the centre director.

And the results have been rolling in one after another. When the professor couple launched the centre in 2002, their objective was to understand how memory is produced. They began by examining the various regions of the brain, segment by segment.

Photo: Geir Mogen, NTNU

MAPPING SYSTEM: The photo shows a grid cell in the brain’s spatial mapping system. Grid cells were discovered at the Centre for the Biology of Memory in 2005. They were first discovered in rats, but are probably found in all mammals. (Photo: Geir Mogen, NTNU)

 

Breakthrough with grid cells

Their big breakthrough came in 2005.

“We discovered signals in the brains of rats that code distance and direction between spatial positions in a room. Each cell is active in places that form a routing network – a type of grid. These grid cells, as we have dubbed them, are located in the part of the brain called the entorhinal cortex, and similar cells are in all likelihood found in all mammals. The signals create a coordinate system in which positions in the surrounding environment can be plotted in. They register our movements. And they are closely linked to our memory,” explains Professor Edvard Moser.

In the course of the following years, CBM’s researchers were able to ascertain that the grid cells cooperate with other specialised nerve cells with complementary roles in computing location, such as place cells and head-direction cells. Together these build a map in the brain that is used by the brain to orient itself in both known and unknown environments.

The brain generates the grid pattern

“The most fascinating aspect of grid cells is that they do not reflect sensory input from the surrounding environment. The grid pattern is generated entirely by the brain itself. This means that we can use grid cells as a gateway to understanding how patterns of activity arise in the brain.”

“The discovery of this grid pattern in the brain took us completely by surprise. Before 2005 no-one thought that anything like this existed in the brain,” continues the professor.

The discovery set the researchers at the SFF centre in Trondheim on an entirely new course. The grid pattern they identified has opened up new possibilities for closer study of how the brain stores information.

“We started out by investigating memory, but we gradually became just as interested in how the brain computes location. Now we know that it is closely linked to memory,” says the professor.

Pure basic research

After CBM’s discoveries became known worldwide, the centre was contacted by the Kavli Foundation. In 2007 the centre was designated the Kavli Institute for Systems Neuroscience, one of 15 highly prestigious Kavli Institutes and the only one in Norway. Since then things have snowballed. Many of the world’s most talented younger researchers in systems neuroscience are keen to join the centre. But Professors May-Britt and Edvard Moser acknowledge that they have to set limits.

“We want to be directly, personally involved with each employee in our group and in their research projects. This is the only way we can maintain the quality of the research. If the lab begins to run on its own, I think it will be the beginning of the end,” says Professor Edvard Moser.

Photo: Ned Alley The husband-and-wife team of Edvard and May-Britt Moser have put Norwegian neuroscience research on the international map. (Photo: Ned Alley)

The research group continues to expand in breadth, however, as modern neuroscience is a highly interdisciplinary field.

“We have gradually incorporated more and more disciplines, such as research groups in anatomy and theoretical physics.”

What next?

Professor Moser admits that he has been a bit concerned about the future. The recent message from the Research Council that the research group will receive funding for a new SFF centre with a somewhat different profile for ten years starting in 2013 is great news.

“We are only interested in carrying out independent research. That is our passion and that has been made possible by our SFF funding. Unlike the other SFF centres, our centre conducts 100 per cent basic research,” says Professor Moser.

Many of CBM’s results are of relevance to understanding the entire spectrum of neurological and psychiatric disorders, not least Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.

“Collaboration with other researchers is essential if we are to take our work further. We will continue to focus on the fundamental building blocks of the brain, and then the clinical researchers will have to take the challenge from there.”

“Basic research is often a long row to hoe. But if one is allowed to follow one’s own path it can lead to undreamt-of results. Our emphasis on basic research is the key to our success,” concludes the professor.

Centre for the Biology of Memory (CBM)
  • Objective: The original objective of the centre was to understand the mechanisms for memory in the brain. After researchers at the centre discovered the mechanism for spatial location in the brain, they have worked to understand how the network of grid cells is organised and how they affect memory production in the hippocampus. Ultimately, the researchers seek to understand neural computation underlying subjective experience in general. 
  • Participants: The Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) is the host institution. Partners include a number of internationally leading memory researchers who are affiliated with the centre as visiting researchers.
  • Annual allocation from the Research Council of Norway: NOK 10 million.
  • Total annual budget: NOK 90 million.
  • Total man-years: 80.

www.ntnu.no/cbm

 

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