Edvard Moser

Edvard Moser is a Norwegian neuroscientist best known for his role in the discovery of grid cells in the brain and the identification of their function in generating spatial coordinates used by animals to navigate their environment. Edvard Moser’s research had important implications for scientists’ understanding of spatial representation in the mammalian brain and offered insight into spatial deficits in neurological disease and the neural processes involved in memory and thinking. For his contributions in elucidating the brain’s neural system for spatial representation, he received the 2014 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine. He shared the award with his wife, Norwegian neuroscientist May-Britt Moser—they were the fifth married couple to share a Nobel Prize—and with British-American neuroscientist John O’Keefe.

Edvard Moser was raised in western coastal Norway. In the early 1980s he studied mathematics, statistics, and programming at the University of Oslo. He married May-Britt, who was also studying at Oslo, in 1985. After earning degrees in psychology and neurobiology in 1990, the couple remained at Oslo, working as graduate students under the supervision of Norwegian researcher Per Oskar Andersen. Edvard’s thesis research centred on understanding the role in spatial learning of neural activity in a region of the brain known as the dentate gyrus. He completed a doctorate degree in neurophysiology in 1995. The following year, after brief stints as a postdoctoral researcher with British neuroscientist Richard Morris, at the University of Edinburgh, and with O’Keefe, at University College London, Edvard joined the faculty at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU). May-Britt also accepted a position there. The Mosers later became full professors at NTNU.

Together, Edvard and May-Britt worked to identify neural networks in the part of the brain known as the hippocampus that were involved in spatial location and spatial memory. In 1971 O’Keefe and his student Jonathan O. Dostrovsky had discovered so-called place cells in the hippocampus that played a critical role in cortical (spatial) mapping. Their work drew attention particularly to place cells in a hippocampal area designated CA1. The Mosers set out to determine whether the activity of place cells in CA1 originated in the hippocampus or in another part of the brain. Their observations led them to investigate a region called the entorhinal cortex, which connected with neurons in CA1. The Mosers recorded the activity of cells specifically in the dorsocaudal medial entorhinal cortex (dMEC) of the rat brain via electrodes that had been positioned precisely within the region. The activity of the cells in the dMEC turned out to be related to the position of the rat in its enclosure, similar to O’Keefe’s finding with place cells. The activity of dMEC cells, however, was strikingly regular, unlike the activity observed in the hippocampus. When rats ran freely in their enclosures, electrode activity spiked at regular intervals, with the spikes spaced evenly across the environment and being similar in size and direction. Mathematical analyses revealed that the regular activity produced a grid of equilateral, tessellating triangles, which inspired the name “grid cell.”

Edvard and May-Britt later discovered other cells in the dMEC, known as head direction cells and border cells, that were involved in spatial representation. Head direction cells were found to transmit signals when an animal positioned its head in a specific direction, and border cells were discovered to transmit signals about an environment’s edges and boundaries. Subsequent research uncovered interactions between grid cells, head direction cells, border cells, and place cells, with the collective activity of the cells providing information about orientation and navigation. The function of the neural spatial system was likened to GPS.

At NTNU Edvard was a founding co-director, with May-Britt, of the Kavli Institute for Systems Neuroscience in 2007 and the Centre for Neural Computation in 2013. In addition to the Nobel Prize, he was a recipient of other prestigious awards, including the 2013 Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize for Biology or Biochemistry (shared with May-Britt and O’Keefe).