Transcript from an interview with May-Britt Moser and Edvard I. Moser

Interview with May-Britt Moser and Edvard I. Moser, 6 December 2014, during the Nobel Week in Stockholm, Sweden.

Could you please explain your Nobel Prize awarded work for 13-14 year olds?

Edvard Moser: We have discovered parts of an internal map that we have in our brain, a map that tells the rest of the brain where we are in the room or in the world.

May-Britt Moser: It is like a GPS-system almost.

Edvard Moser: There are different types of cells. O’Keefe, who is the third prize winner, he found a type of cell that is called place cell, which is active only when animals or humans are in one certain place. We found another type of cell that fires active in many places and those places where the cell is active tend to form strictly hexagonal patterns so the many locations in the room where the cell is active form a grid or like a coordinate system that tells the brain where we are.

May-Britt Moser: The animal is walking, and it can be an animal, it can be a human being, then you can record with tiny sensors in the brain and you record the electrical pulses that are released from the cells and you magnify them 10 000 times and then we can listen to one by one cell. And then if we now listen to one place cell and this is the area where the animal is walking around – this is the rat and then it is silent, silent, silent and then suddenly you start to hear: “Po, po, po, po, popo, popo, popopo” and then the rat is moving out again. And whenever the animal is coming back to this place, it is the same thing happening: “Po, po, po, po, popo, popo, popopo” and it doesn’t matter how the animal is coming in, from which directions. And the interesting part is that these place cells, they are located in different areas in the environment. So, one place would be active here, and another here and so on, but then the grid cell that we found doesn’t have one single active field, but it has several ones and they are separate like Edvard said, like each field look like a checkerboard, how do you say? The chess …

Edvard Moser: Like hole in a Chinese checkerboard.

May-Britt Moser: Yes, like a Chinese checkerboard, thank you. So then where the marble should go, that is where the activity field is. And we know that this Chinese checkerboard, they have all these small triangles in between all marbles and that is exactly the firing patterns of the grid cells. Then the grid cells come in different sizes, big fields, big distance between the fields, small and so on. This is the information that goes into the hippocampus, which is the place cell, where John O’Keefe found the place cell. And the interesting part is that, the hippocampus with the place cells, if you lose your cells in this structure, you can’t remember what you had for breakfast, if you had breakfast at all. And if you lose the same cells you can’t find your way in the environment and the input to these cells, that is the grid cells. So, the grid cells are tightly involved in both space navigation and memory.

What brought you to science?

Edvard Moser: For me, I was interested in science already when I was a child. I didn’t really know what is was, but I read a lot about scientists and their work and I thought becoming a scientist was like digging dinosaurs, that is what I thought, but I thought that was exciting. And then I read about meteorology and about volcanos and about physics, everything that I could come over, so I nearly knew that I wanted to do this but didn’t really know much what is was like. And then many years later, when I came to university, then … Because I knew wanted to go to university, and then together with May-Britt I then began studies of psychology and then the part of psychology that excited both of us by far the most, was the brain and trying to explain behaviour by the brain and that is an experimental science. And I think I never really had anything else on my mind at least, except perhaps for very short breaks, so I wanted to be a scientist from the beginning.

May-Britt Moser: You wanted to study volcanoes.

Edvard Moser: Yes, I mean the field was open. For a long time I wanted to become a physicist and work on elementary particles, but now I am so glad that I ended up in the brain.

May-Britt Moser: I didn’t read that much as Edvard did but I was extremely curious. And I was curious on humans and animals and I really wanted to understand why they do this and why they don’t do that. And when I became older I knew that I have to go to the university in order to do this, but I didn’t, as Edvard said, I didn’t know how, so when I went to the university finally then I started to study mathematics and physics because those were the topics I loved in the high school, but I didn’t know what kind of job I could get. And then luckily I met Edvard, even though we had been at the same high school, we didn’t know each other that well and then we decided, hm, should we do this together, and then we just made a new path step by step without knowing other things standing star in front of us. We want to understand why the brain or how the brain is working to give behaviour. That is what we’re still doing, and it is fantastic.

Who is your role model, and why?

Edvard Moser: I’m not sure there is a single role model.

May-Britt Moser: Me!

Edvard Moser: No, I think it is part of becoming a scientist that you actually have to trust your own judgement as well and go for the really long term goals that no one else has put up, but there are many scientists who I admire but I think it would be kind of wrong to mention one by name because then I always forget the second one.

May-Britt Moser: As you say it is extremely important the support that we have got from other scientists and that they have believed in us and given advice when we needed advice. For example, when we started with our labs just half-year after our PhD:s. That was a crazy decision but still people supported us and said, you can do it if you focus on this and that if you collaborate instead of splitting and trying to build two labs and so on.

Edvard Moser: But since the context is Nobel Prizes, you can always mention a few names at least, so Eric Kandel, his work we got exposed to very early and already in the 1980’s was work that we read about and thought was super exciting and then we met him and he has sort of followed us all the way. Another one is Torsten Wiesel, who is also related to Sweden. His work in the 60s especially, was extremely important.

May-Britt Moser: Hubel and Wiesel, it was just like the bible, and the same with Eric Kandel’s book.

Edvard Moser: Defined our field. So those two are at least persons that have meant a lot both for our field and for us personally.

May-Britt Moser: And also for my PhD, then I studied structural changes after different experiences, like living in a enriched environment and then it was so fantastic for me to read about the Aplysia work of Eric Kandel because he had shown the same thing in the Aplysia when this tiny sea slug is learning. And then I could believe also in my own data because I have read his work. On a lot of different occasions, these people have been important, and also when we were master students.

At what point did you realize your work was a breakthrough?

Edvard Moser: I think pretty early actually, so when we saw that the firing pattern of this cells forms a strictly hexagonal structure, so very, very regular, almost like a coordinate system then …

May-Britt Moser: That was crazy.

Edvard Moser: … and it was so different from what anyone had expected that we knew that this would be kind of revolutionary, so we worked on really, being sure that there was no mistake in the data. We did lots of control experiments and we sent it to Nature and it went right in, so that kind of confirmed our suspicion that it was important. Yet it was of course, difficult to imagine that only nine years later it will be a Nobel Prize. That is perhaps beyond, but still we knew that it was very important from the beginning.

May-Britt Moser: And the exciting part of these cells is, like Edvard said, that we tried to do all these controls to find out – is there a specific order, does the rat see something specific that make this grid pattern – and there is none. And that means that this pattern is generated by the brain itself and then it’s like going into the brain and detecting the mystery of the brain by studying these cells. And if you start to understand even more how they are generated we understand so much about how the brain is working.

What were you doing when you heard you had been awarded the Nobel Prize?

Edvard Moser: In my case, I was actually out flying, so the rest of the world knew about it and I didn’t know anything. So I only got the news when I landed and that was also a bit peculiar because I came out of the airplane and then I was met like a VIP with flowers and name sign at the gate, not after the baggage as usual. I sensed something was strange, but it wasn’t on my mind that this was the day when the Nobel Prize was announced. I would have known it, but I didn’t think about it. And then I asked: “Why all this special attention?” and the lady who picked me up she didn’t know, she knew that it was a prize, but she didn’t know which prize. So she mixed it up with something else and was still not clear and what made it clear to me was when I checked my phone because on that flight to Munich, two hours, then there had been hundreds of calls and then there was a text message from Göran Hansson, the secretary of the Nobel Committee and then I, sort of, finally sensed it.

And where were you, May-Britt?

May-Britt Moser: When I heard about the prize, then I was in a lab meeting at a lab and it was such an exciting meeting and it went over time and I was expecting to have another meeting with other people. I got this phone call and I saw it and I said: “No, I don’t recognize this number, I don’t want to speak to this person, I am so busy”. And then I thought, hm, maybe I should take this phone and pick it up and I did, and I heard that it was Göran Hansson and then I was just, hm, why are you calling me? And then I thought maybe this is something serious, I went to my office and then I realized that it was about the Nobel Prize. Then I thought maybe he wants to have some comments about another Nobel Prize winner, just let me sit down and relax and then he said “No, it is you. You and O’Keefe and Edvard who got the Nobel Prize” and I said: “No, I don’t believe you, please can you send me an e-mail so that I can read it because I don’t believe my ears”. And then I got the e-mail and still I didn’t believe it. So it went on and off, I believed it and then I didn’t believe it and then I went to the dean and showed the letter on my phone to the dean and said: “Do you read the same thing as I do?”. He was just: What do you have here?” and then he: “You won the Nobel Prize?”, and it was crazy. So that was an experience, but then I realized that I was so grateful. Especially also about getting this focus on the work that Edvard and I had done and the whole team and also the support that we have got from Norway, from NTNU, from the local university, from politicians abroad, Kavli Institute and it was just  “oh wow”, finally we can say thank you to them, that they believed in us.

Watch the interview

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