Could these 2014 Nobel Prize scientists save your memory?

memoryWhat do you do when someone you love is so disoriented and afraid they’re trying to leave the house in the middle of the night? They can’t remember where they are, or who they are, or where they should be.

It’s a terrifying thought, and worse still, when it happens to someone close to you.


The truth is, it’s very much the reality for family and friends of people with Alzheimer’s disease, a degenerative brain disease that can steal away your memory, your relationships and your ability to take care of yourself.

It’s happening right now to the grandmother of a friend of mine. Her mom was taking care of her grandmother who lived alone well into her 80s. She was failing, forgetting things and often confused. The family came to the realization that the grandmother needed full-time care at a seniors’ home.

That said, my friend’s mom still visits her grandmother twice a day to make sure she’s fed and taken care of properly, aiming for some peace of mind. Still, the grandmother has started waking and wandering during the night, frightened, and trying to leave the locked premises.

Now my friend says her grandmother rarely recognizes her or her mom. With a definitive diagnosis of Alzheimer’s, the family knows her condition is getting worse.

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It’s heartbreaking to hear about. And it makes me think of the conversations I’ve had with my mom about how my dad is not as sharp as he used to be, that he will forget to turn off the lights when he leaves a room sometimes. That’s so not like my dad, always evil-eying the electric bill! So I think about what it would be like for me and my family if he’s diagnosed with Alzheimer’s – what it must be like to witness someone you love slowly lose themselves and their connection to the world.

Despite the risk factors for Alzheimer’s, we all have the capacity to remember. It’s built into our brain, and scientists are now tapping into this natural ability we all possess.

Alzheimer’s crippling our senior population

This is good news, considering the prevalence of Alzheimer’s. Numbers from the latest data from the 2010 U.S. Census and the Chicago Health and Aging Project (CHAP), a population-based study of chronic health diseases of older people, show one in nine Americans age 65 and older (11 percent) has Alzheimer’s. One in nine!

About one-third of Americans age 85 and older (32 percent) has the disease. It’s crippling our senior population.

There’s no cure, only strategies to manage the symptoms and cognitive decline.

So when I hear about research from the world’s top scientific minds that may influence our understanding and treatment of Alzheimer’s, that’s something to applaud.

2014 Nobel Prize discovers link between mind and memory

The 2014 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to British-American researcher John O’Keefe and husband and wife Norwegian team May-Britt Moser and Edvard Moser. Their research has identified brain cells that operate like an “inner GPS” – a positioning system that allows us to orient ourselves and find the way from one place to another. There is so much about the human mind that we don’t understand. But this puts us one step closer…

With Alzheimer’s, people often lose their way and can’t recognize their surroundings. Knowledge about how the brain’s positioning system works can help us to decode the mechanism responsible for the memory loss and brain degeneration that come with this formidable disease.

How do we know where we are?

How do we know how to get from our kitchen to the bedroom, or from where we live to the corner store? By getting familiar with landmarks and repeating our steps time and time again. It has to do with how the brain creates a map of the space surrounding us so that we can navigate familiar territory or find our way along new routes to new destinations. How do we store this information so that we can find it easily the next time we want to trace the same path?

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There is a cellular basis for this kind of higher brain function.

O’Keefe, the director of the Sainsbury Wellcome Centre in Neural Circuits and Behaviour at University College London, discovered the first component of this cellular positioning system in 1971. He found that a type of nerve cell in the brain’s hippocampus was always activated when a rat came to a certain place in a room. Then other nerve cells were activated when a rat was at other places in the same room. He came to the conclusion that these “place cells” formed a map of the room.

Fast-forward more than three decades, May-Britt and Edvard Moser, both directors of neuroscience centers in Trondheim, uncovered another key part of the brain’s positioning system. They had previously worked in O’Keefe’s laboratory at University College London and were building on his research.

They identified another type of nerve cell they call “grid cells” – also when mapping the brain connections to the hippocampus of rats moving in a room. They discovered a pattern of activity in a nearby part of the brain called the entorhinal cortex. Specialized cells were activated to generate a coordinate system, like that handy GPS in your car, which enable precise positioning and orienteering. Their research showed how place and grid cells make it possible to determine position, recognize surroundings and to navigate.

So when people say that our bodies are made up of matter and energy with all these electrical impulses making us function, it starts to make sense in a blow-your-mind kind of way!

A place for maps in the human brain

I’ve read that brain imaging techniques, and studies of patients having neurosurgery, have provided evidence that place and grid cells exist in humans as well. So the Nobel science has very real, human applications.

In patients with Alzheimer’s disease, experts say the hippocampus and entorhinal cortex are often affected at an early stage, causing people to lose their way and not recognize their surroundings.


This knowledge about the brain’s positioning system and how the brain’s specialized cells work together is thought-provoking for laymen and scientists alike. It opens new avenues for understanding other cognitive processes, such as memory, thinking and planning.

I think there’s so much in store for understanding Alzheimer’s and working toward a cure.

Karen Hawthorne is managing editor at Health eTalk and Karen has worked for the National Post, Postmedia News, CBC Radio Vancouver, the Edmonton Journal, the Kitchener-Waterloo Record and the Cobourg Daily Star, reporting on health news and lifestyle trends for over 15 years.