GPS map and body compass

Emilio Kropff, a CONICET researcher who worked with two of the winners of this year, explains the importance of the neuronal system of geolocation.

Emilio Kropff [Photo: Instituto Leloir]

Emilio Kropff [Photo: Instituto Leloir]

This year the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to John M. O'Keefe, director of the Sainsbury College in Neural Circuits and Behavior at the University College London; to May-Britt Moser, director of the Center for Neural Computation in Trondheim, Norway; and to Edvard I. Moser, director of the Kavli Institute for Systems Neuroscience in Tronheim, for "the discovery of cells that constitute a positioning system in the brain", according to the press released.

In the brain information about the location, position and direction of the body is produced, processed and integrated by different types of neurons in different structures, which form a sort of GPS and internal compasses. In 1971 O'Keefe found the “place cells” in rats, which are activated when animals are at certain place in a room; while May-Britt and Edvard Moser described in 2004 the “grid cells”, which are activated in multiple locations to make a perfect hexagonal network extended throughout the space.

Emilio Kropff, CONICET research assistant in the Laboratory of Neuronal Plasticity at the Leloir Institute, worked together with Moser in the discovery of the “border cells” related to the identification of geometric boundaries within the explored environment, such as a wall or a cliff.

"In the brain there is a mechanism to be guided in open space, which changes the rules when reaching the edge of space, and these neurons would be intervening in this process", explains Kropff.

For its functions, the place, grid and border cells along with the head direction -a sort of compass indicating the direction of the rat’s heads- are part of the spatial positioning system integrating different signals in the brain.

Information on the location of the body and space is integrated at the level of the hippocampus and the entorhinal cortex, two structures located in the temporal lobes and where these neurons are located. Hippocampus is a region operatively associated with the generation of the memory and memories while the entorhinal cortex functions as an information bridge between the hippocampus and the cerebral cortex.

"Information from all processing areas and senses reach the hippocampus, and processed information goes to other parts of the brain, but the data input and output door of this complex is the entorhinal cortex" adds Kropff.

Thus, these structures process information provided by different neurons and brain centers and from processing brain data is able to determine the position of the body and the space surrounding us.

"The work made by John O'Keefe, May-Britt Moser and Edvard Moser has dramatically changed our understanding of how fundamental cognitive functions are performed by neural circuits in the brain and provide new clues about how spatial memory can be created" explains the communication of the Karolinska Institute where the winners were announced.

National Council of Scientific and Technical Research (CONICET)
  • Emilio Kropff [Photo: Instituto Leloir]
  • Emilio Kropff [Photo: Instituto Leloir]
  • Location of the hippocampus and entorhinal cortex in the temporal lobe. [Image: CONICET]
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Emilio Kropff [Photo: Instituto Leloir]

Emilio Kropff [Photo: Instituto Leloir]

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