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Women's History Month Feature: May-Britt Moser

Updated: Apr 9, 2023


May-Britt Moser

Article By Negin Ghasemi

History shows how women took part in the development of neuroscience’s modern interdisciplinary field from the beginning, and it’s not mentioned readily. “Women are so grossly under-represented in modern science because, for most of history, they have been treated as intellectual inferiors and deliberately excluded from it,” wrote Angela Saini in her book Inferior, which is why it’s a responsibility to represent the hard work of women in science.

Females who won Nobel prizes are not lacking, but they’re indeed few. Between 1901 and 2021 only 58 women have been awarded the Nobel prize (from 975 Nobel Prize laureates). May-Britt Moser is a psychologist and neuroscientist. She has been awarded a Nobel prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2014 for their discoveries of cells that constitute a positioning system in the brain.


Personal Life and Work:

May-Britt Moser was born in Norway. After studying psychology at the University of Oslo, she wasn’t completely sure what she wanted to do with her degree. She was accepted into dentistry school but declined the offer. May-Britt soon met Edvard I. Moser, they married in 1985 and decided to study the relationship between brain and behaviour together. In 1991, the couple had their first child, Isabel. They found it difficult to balance a Ph.D. program with having a child, but the passion for their studies fueled them to bring their daughter into the lab. They had their second daughter in 1995, and later that year May-Britt received her Doctorate in Neurophysiology.

The couple travelled to the University of Edinburgh to work with Richard Morris, a neuroscientist with whom they took their postdoctoral training. They later visited University College London, working in John O’ Keefe’s laboratory with their postdoctoral fellows. They eventually decided to work at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) in Trondheim, where she became a professor of neuroscience and director of the university’s Center for Neural Computation. They were also joined in for the establishment of the Centre for the Biology of Memory (CBM) in 2002 and the Institute for Systems Neuroscience at NTNU in 2007. May-Britt is also a member of the Royal Norwegian Society of Sciences and Letters, the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters, the American Philosophical Society, and the Norwegian Academy of Technological Sciences. She was also appointed by the European Research Council as a member of one of the evaluation panels for ERC startup grants for the period 2007 to 2009.

The couple pioneered research on the brain’s mechanism for representing space together with their mentor John O’Keefe. They discovered types of cells that are important for determining position close to the hippocampus, an area in the brain important for encoding space, and also for episodic memory. They investigated correlations between the anatomical structure of the hippocampus and social learning in rats. Their work gave new knowledge into the cognitive processes and spatial deficits associated with human neurological conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease.

In 2014, the couple shared half of the 2014 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. The other half of the prize was awarded to John O’Keefe. The couple announced their divorce in 2016 but continued their scientific work together.


Research and Discoveries:

While doing their master’s thesis in Per Andersen lab and looking for LTP (Long Term Potentiation) in rats, the couple learned that by making large lesions in ventral part of the hippocampus the rats will still learn, and only the dorsal part of the hippocampus was involved in spatial learning and memory and that the hippocampus was functionally heterogeneous. In a meeting in ENA, while showing their work, Richard Morris recommended working with Len Jerrard, who was an expert in making lesions without removing the fibres.

The experiment raised the question if the dorsal part is involved in memory what does the ventral part do? For May-Britt's doctorate, she trained animals to see if there is an expansion of the number of synapses with learning. She found out that there was a difference between the rats that lived in an enriched environment and those that did not. Also worked further with animals in the water maze, the results showed that the animals that had lived in the enriched environment were faster and better at remembering the hidden platform in the water maze. She published three papers based on these research results.

During their Ph.D., Richard Morris wanted the couple in for a follow-up on their master’s findings on the difference between the dorsal and the ventral part of the hippocampus but using chemical lesions instead of aspiration. There, they confirmed their earlier results – that the dorsal and the ventral parts of the hippocampus are different.

After their Ph.D., Morris and Per suggested working with O’Keefe in the University College London. John O’Keefe taught them everything about single-cell recording.

They started searching for the spatial signal in structures upstream of the hippocampus – like the entorhinal cortex. That eventually led to the discovery of grid cells. The question was “where does the signal to the place cells come from?”. May-Britt explains “We tried to answer this question by making small lesions in the early stages of the hippocampal circuit, in the CA3 area, as a way to interrupt the intrinsic circuit. We then put electrodes in the CA1 area of the hippocampus, which is where most of the place cells had been recorded. If the place cells were a product of processes that happened at earlier stages of the hippocampus, we should have been able to block those signals by interrupting the hippocampal circuit. But what we found was that we still had spatial signals, even after we made the lesions that should have stopped the signal.” This led to the discovery of the grid cells in 2005.

In 2006, the couple, and their colleagues led by Francesca Sargolini, found cells in the medial entorhinal cortex that tell the animal which direction it is facing, called head direction cells.

In 2008, they found the third type of entorhinal cell type that they called border cells because they fire at the edges and boundaries of the local environment.

By 2012, with the ability to record from many grid cells from individual rats they were able to describe how the brain shifts between different map resolutions in a stepwise fashion rather than continuously, and that the brain has at least four different maps of location, where grid cells are organised into different independent modules in which the scale, orientation and phase relationships are all preserved.

They continued to fill the puzzle with help from many other scientists and organisations in 8 years. Then finally in 2014, they were awarded the Nobel Prize for their discoveries of cells that constitute a positioning system in the brain.



Resources:


Gorman, James. “A Sense of Where You Are.” The New York Times. 30 April, 2013.https://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/30/science/may-britt-and-edvard-moser-explore-the-brains-gps.html?_r=0


Metitieri, Tiziana, and Sonia Mele. “Women in Neuroscience: A Short Time Travel.” Reference Module in Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Psychology (2020): B978-0-12-819641-0.00007-4. doi:10.1016/B978-0-12-819641-0.00007-4


Moser. Structural correlates of spatial learning in the hippocampus of adult rats. Thesis for the degree of Ph.D., University of Oslo (Defended, 9 December 1995).


Saini. Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story. Fourth Estate Books. 2017.


Brice, Emma. “May-Britt Moser Is Mapping the Human Brain.” Wired UK, 28 May 2017, https://www.wired.co.uk/article/mapping-human-brain-may-britt-moser. Accessed 15 Mar. 2022.




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