Neuroscientist Eleanor Maguire seemed surprised when she was introduced Thursday as the most famous member of a panel that included three Nobel-Prize-winning scientists.
Maguire, a professor of cognitive neuroscience at University College London, was awarded an Ig Nobel Prize in 2003 for a study that measured the brain sizes of taxicab drivers during their three-year “knowledge training” required to navigate the 25,000 streets and myriad monuments of central London.
She drew more public attention than the three scientists awarded the Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine in 2014, said Carol Barnes, head of the University of Arizona’s McKnight Brain Institute, who introduced the quartet of neuroscientists to the press before a public talk here.
The Ig Nobel Prizes are awarded yearly at Harvard University for scientific projects that “make people laugh, then think.”
Maguire’s research, which measured changes in the size and composition of the hippocampus during taxi-driver training, fits in nicely with the work of her Nobel-Prize-winning colleagues, who discovered the “grid” and “place” cells that allow rats to form a mental map.
John O’Keefe, professor at the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience and Department of Anatomy, University College London, located the “place” cells in the tiny, seahorse-shaped hippocampus.
May-Britt Moser and Edvard Moser, both of the University of Oslo, found “grid” cells in the nearby entorhinal cortex.
Edvard Moser is director of the Kavli Institute of Systems Neuroscience, and May-Britt Moser is professor and founding director of the Centre of Neural Computation.
Scientists have come to realize that the regions studied by these scientists are the brain’s GPS system, in humans as well as rats.
Beyond that, said Maguire, the region is “critical to helping you plan and manage your future. It affects how you see the world.”
It is also one of the first areas of the brain affected by Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. O’Keefe called it a good example of how research “initially conducted for its own sake” can translate to therapy for preventing or curing disease.
A cure for Alzheimer’s is possible, he said. “We think we’re on the way, but I wouldn’t want to put a time frame on it.”
“Understanding the brain is the first step,” May-Britt Moser said. “We need to know how it works in order to understand diseases of the brain.”
All four visiting scientists have past and present connections with colleagues at the UA.
O’Keefe was Barnes’ postgraduate mentor. He is co-author with Lynn Nadel, UA Regents’ Professor of Psychology and Cognitive Science, of “The Hippocampus as a Cognitive Map.”
Edvard and May-Britt Moser said they were inspired early in their careers by work done by Barnes and Nadel and saluted the advances in brain imaging accomplished at the UA.
At a public forum, attended by many students of neuroscience and its many related fields, the four were asked to name the most important qualities of a scientist.
Maguire suggested perseverance, stamina and passion.
May-Britt Moser said scientists need “a vision, a star in front of your eyes.”
Edvard Moser, famous for wearing sneakers when he met the King of Norway as part of the Nobel ceremonies, said good scientists “believe in their own ideas. They do it differently. The real breakthroughs come from people who take risks.”
He wore red sneakers to the event Thursday.
O’Keefe said the thrill of breakthrough research and the occasional Nobel Prize were not everyday reality. “Most of it is a really hard slog. You have to be good at what you want to do.”
The four scientists were invited by Nadel, Barnes and Mary Peterson, chair of the UA’s School of Mind, Brain and Behavior, to help inaugurate the new multidisciplinary Center for Innovation in Brain Science.
A UA news release noted that it is also “the 25th anniversary of the Arizona Research Laboratories Division of Neural Systems, Memory and Aging, the 10th anniversary of the McKnight Brain Institute and the fifth anniversary of the School of Mind, Brain and Behavior at the UA.”