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New Centre of Excellence – neuroscience:

Ethics and brain research

“Happy people, happy animals, excellent research” is May-Britt Moser’s motto at the new Norwegian Centre of Excellence (SFF) for neuroscience research in Trondheim. Ethics will be paramount in their research.

The Trondheim-based neuroscientists are now entering their second SFF period, as the Centre for the Biology of Memory has been concluded and the Centre for Neural Computation (CNC) has started up. The new centre’s director is once again named Moser, but this time it is the other half of the couple, May-Britt, who is in charge.

The field of neuroscience has transformed radically since the Mosers’ first SFF centre saw the light of day in 2002. It is now possible to investigate how the most advanced psychological functions such as thought, memory and planning occur and study the interactions between large groups of neurons in neural circuits when these take place.

Photo: Bolek Srebro May-Britt Moser (Photo: Bolek Srebro) “At the previous SFF centre our objective was to learn more about memory,” says May-Britt Moser. “Now our perspective is much broader – we’re looking to enhance our understanding of how the brain functions and what kind of neural computations are behind the fundamental psychological functions. What happens when we think, learn, plan?”

A window to the brain

The sensational discovery by the Mosers and their colleagues in 2005 of grid cells, the springboard for their current research, is considered the one of the biggest leap in neuroscience in decades and is cited frequently in scientific articles around the world.

“When we began exploring deep in the cerebral cortex, where thinking and cognition are located, it seemed at first to be pure chaos. But then we found these cells that were suddenly firing distinct, regular signals – generated by processes within the brain itself, so the activity was not the result of external stimulation.”

Because the grid pattern is produced by the brain alone, these cells have opened the door to understanding a great deal more about the brain. The activities at the CNC will continue doing exactly that. The Mosers call the advanced techniques that allow researchers to study coordination between neural cells as nothing less than revolutionary.

“Using many new methods from a variety of disciplines, we can now form theories about how the brain’s neurons work together,” says Professor Moser.

The origin of memory

Last year their research took another leap forward when they found that the brain’s grid cells comprise different networks, called modules, where memory is encoded. Each module’s grid cells relay signals to the hippocampus, the archive of our memories.

“The brain uses this sense of location, which probably develops very early, to form lots of combinations of activities,” explains May-Britt. “Each combination is a memory.” This suggests that sense of location may be the “origin of memory”.
“From personal experience we know that the sense of location is the best way to remember something. When you recall meeting a person, you also remember where you met. To distinguish between Christmas 1998 and Christmas 1999, you need to associate the memories with a place.”

This discovery, which was prominently featured in the December 2012 issue of Nature, offers a possible explanation for the brain’s tremendous capacity to remember. The Mosers acknowledge, however, that many questions remain unanswered in this respect.

Photo: NTNU TRUSTING: Research animals at the Centre for Neural Computation receive tender care from handlers such as Merethe Andresen (pictured). The animals also live in enriched environments. (Photo: NTNU)

Need to think like children

Asked whether they are expecting major new discoveries within the next few years, the centre director responds:

“Thus far it has been completely impossible to predict where our research would take us. Our method is to think with the openness and curiosity of children. We have hypotheses but we are not bound by them. And we’re always exposing ourselves to things outside our own disciplines. Besides my husband and myself, there are three other research group leaders – one in molecular biology, one in anatomy and one in theoretical physics. We will be recruiting another group leader, and that will be in a very different but complementary field such as the genetics of the fruit fly. This will give us even more new insight.”

Exceptional long-term opportunities

“We have been given a tremendous opportunity to carry out long-term, high-risk research, thanks in great part to the SFF scheme,” says May-Britt Moser. In addition to winning SFF status for the second time, they are also the only Kavli Institute in Norway, funded by the Kavli Foundation.

“This gives us without question a unique basis and a very special position internationally. Our SFF status and funding allows us to attract the world’s best researchers and doctoral students, and makes it possible for us to take a more long-range approach to our research. And we are not pressed to publish before we can put our findings into a larger theoretical context.”

“If we were to be measured by how many articles we publish, we would get a failing mark. But ask us if we have any good research stories to tell, and we can regale you for hours.”

Ethics of major importance

The Mosers are fully aware that there are high expectations for their work.

“We feel a responsibility for managing these resources in the best way possible. We can repay the investments by making important discoveries. We can also give something back by developing future neuroscience researchers in, here in Norway and internationally, and by teaching at all levels. We have the chance to train people to become highly-skilled, ethics-oriented researchers.”

The Mosers are intent on taking good care of those who work at the new SFF centre, and the lab animals are raised in enriched environments. Treated kindly by their handlers, the animals are happy and trusting of humans. May-Britt and Edvard Moser appreciate that the centre’s personnel, at every level, are so principled in all that they do.

“For every single animal we use for research purposes,” explains Professor Moser, “we ask ourselves: Is this important enough to sacrifice an animal?”

Centre for Neural Computation (CNC)
  • Objective: To advance the understanding of the brain’s fundamental neural mechanisms.
  • Centre director: May-Britt Moser
  • Annual allocation from the Research Council: NOK 17.5 million
  • Total person-years: 80
  • No. of doctoral degrees planned: 28 doctoral and 35 post-doctoral fellows by 2022


Written by:
Siw Ellen Jakobsen/Else Lie. Translation: Darren McKellep/Carol B. Eckmann
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