Nobel and IgNobel

Awards for the serious and not so serious

Three neuroscientists with backgrounds in psychology have won the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine. John O’Keefe, whose PhD was in physiological psychology, shared the prize with husband and wife May Britt-Moser and Edvard Moser.

O’Keefe received the prize for his 1971 discovery of place cells. He found that a type of nerve cell in the hippocampus was consistently activated when a rat was at a certain place in a room while other nerve cells were activated when the rat was in a different place. O’Keefe drew the conclusion that these place cells formed a map of the room, laying the foundation of our understanding of how our brains form a picture of space and how we navigate.

He received his doctoral degree in physiological psychology from McGill University, Canada, in 1967. After that, he moved to the UK for postdoctoral training at UCL, where he remained and was appointed Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience in 1987. May Britt-Moser and Edvard Moser were postdoctoral students in O’Keefe’s lab and discovered grid cells in the brain cells of rats in 2005, these, they found, helped the animals to understand their location in the world.

Psychologist Hugo Spiers, head of the Spatial Cognition Group at UCL, was trained by O’Keefe. He told The Guardian: ‘All three scientists awarded the prize have dramatically changed how we understand the brain’s navigation and memory systems. John O’Keefe made a remarkable discovery in 1971 when he found “place cells” in a brain region called the hippocampus, which provide an organised map of space in their activity patterns.

‘O’Keefe speculated that place cells would need information akin to latitude and longitude in order to map space. Where this signal was located remained mysterious until 2005 when May-Britt and Edvard Moser discovered “grid cells” in a brain region known as the medial entorhinal cortex. These cells show hexagonal patterns of activity stretching over the space traversed, similar to the lines that mark out distances on a globe. Grid cells and place cells offer one of the few bridges neuroscientists have linking the cellular level to the cognitive level, as they help explain how individual brain cells help us navigate, remember the past and imagine the future.’ 

Research to make you laugh... then think

How reindeer react to seeing humans dressed as polar bears, the use of nasally inserted strips of pork to treat nosebleeds and the mental hazards of cat ownership were among the winners in the 24th annual Ig Nobel prize awards. The Ig Nobel prize celebrates scientific research that, at first glance, is verging on the hilarious but, importantly, makes you think. This year’s prize-winner in the Psychology category was a study that found that people who habitually stay up late are, on average, more self-admiring, more manipulative and more psychopathic than people who habitually rise early in the morning.

The study by Dr Peter K. Jonason (University of Western Sydney), Amy Jones and Dr Minna Lyons (both Liverpool Hope University) looked into the hypothesis that Dark Triad traits in individuals (psychopathy, Machiavellianism and narcissism) would be linked to an ‘eveningness disposition’, due to previous evidence that this evening chronotype (an individual difference that reflects a person’s propensity to go to sleep/wake up early or late) is linked to impulsivity and risk-seeking and limited conscientiousness and agreeableness – which have all been linked to the Dark Triad. They tested 263 participants, 74 males, online using measures for narcissism, psychopathy and Machiavellianism as well as the Morningness Eveningness Questionnaire to uncover chronotypes. They found that the ‘darker’ aspects (Machiavellianism, secondary psychopathy and exploitative narcissism) were linked to a night-time preference. The researchers point out that this disposition will take advantage of the ‘low light, the limited monitoring and the lessened cognitive processing of morning-type people’.

Dr Jonason told The Psychologist: ‘I watched an episode of QI a few weeks ago. Stephen Fry said that if you cannot win a Nobel prize, the next best thing is an Ig Nobel. This is a glowing endorsement of the award in my mind and thus I am happy to receive it.’

The research was covered on our Research Digest blog – see tinyurl.com/ogacnpc.

The prize, organised by The Annals of Improbable Research, began in 1991. The ever-quirky ceremony is held at Harvard University and this year honoured winners from five continents, with the awards handed to the winners by four genuine Nobel laureates: Carol Greider (Physiology or Medicine, 2009) Eric Maskin (Economics, 2007), Rich Roberts (Physiology or Medicine, 1993), and Frank Wilczek (Physics, 2004). Among the other winners were Kiyoshi Mabuchi, Kensei Tanaka, Daichi Uchijima and Rina Sakai, in the physics category for measuring the amount of friction between a shoe and a banana skin, and between a banana skin and the floor, when a person steps on a banana skin that’s on the floor. In the neuroscience category the winners were Jiangang Liu, Jun Li, Lu Feng, Ling Li, Jie Tian, and Kang Lee, for trying to understand what happens in the brains of people who see the face of Jesus in a piece of toast.

The ‘Public Health’ category prize went to Jaroslav Flegr, Jan Havlíc˘ek and Jitka Hanušova-Lindova, and to David Hanauer, Naren Ramakrishnan and Lisa Seyfried, for investigating whether it is mentally hazardous for a human being to own a cat. The medicine prize was won by Ian Humphreys, Sonal Saraiya, Walter Belenky and James Dworkin, based in the USA and India, for treating uncontrollable nosebleeds using the method of nasal-packing-with-strips-of-cured-pork. Norway and Germany-based researchers Eigil Reimers and Sindre Eftestøl won the Arctic Science prize for testing how reindeer react to seeing humans who are disguised as polar bears. 

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