“Suppose you were to go back to the place where you lived as a child,” neuroscientist Richard Morris prompts, “You could probably go back to the exact spot where the house was, but it may have changed dramatically…It may be a whole different kind of neighborhood. But you would know that was the place where you had grown up.”
So what happens in our brains to give us this innate sense of place? Morris has devoted the last 50 years to researching and understanding the mechanisms in our brain that power this “internal GPS” and offered some insight on Tuesday’s episode of BBC Radio’s “The Life Scientific.” His work focuses on how brain connections change, strengthen, and weaken in response to patterns of activity that correspond to everyday life experiences.
Morris was inspired to study the brain after meeting Nobel Laureate John O’Keefe in London. He was intrigued by O’Keefe’s discovery of place cells, neurons located in the hippocampus that become active when an animal enters a specific point within its environment. Morris was captivated by the fact that these brain cells were not responding to visual, auditory, or somatosensory stimuli. “They were somehow keying into the idea that there are particular places in a familiar world that were special, and a different cell would respond to different places.” Expanding on O’Keefe’s study, he sought to test whether or not these cells were necessary for navigation.
Earlier this year, Morris, a Dana Alliance member, was awarded the prestigious Brain Prize for his work examining the neurobiology of learning and memory. He is also credited with inventing the water maze, a model that has become one of the “gold standards” of behavioral neuroscience. By using this maze in his research, he was able to identify the concept of place and spatial cues that remain independent despite all the changing sensory cues around it.
When asked whether he is motivated more by his curiosity or by research and its potential medical implications, Morris replied that it’s the former.
That curiosity would be vacuous if it wasn’t in the context of knowing that there are all sorts of extremely important problems in the neurological and psychiatric domains, to which this sort of work is relevant…I’d like to feel, as I look back on my life…that I didn’t just pursue my own idol curiosity; but I did it in the context of a set of problems that might have some bearing on humankind.
The full 28-minute interview can be found on BBC’s site and downloaded for free. The weekly podcast is hosted by Jim Al-Khalili and invites leading scientists to discuss their life and work, as well as what motivates them in their scientific pursuits.
– Seimi Rurup