The announcement today that O’Keefe, Moser, & Moser would share the 2014 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine was great news for those of us who study behavior. The work done by these scientists and their many students and collaborators has done much to elucidate how the brain determines and tracks our location in space. Working together, the Place Cells of O’Keefe and the Grid Cells of Moser and Moser map our location onto a neural GPS system. The image below provides a brief overview, as does this TED talk by Burgess.
Here I want to address a consequence of this announcement that might be lost on many: this Nobel Prize asserts the importance of behavioral studies. The Place and Grid Cells could only have been discovered in studies of behaving animals; no amount of work at the biochemical, neurophysiological, or anatomical level alone could have told us anything about the function of these cells. Behavioral research is messy: lots of variability, many factors to control, the vagaries of living, behaving animals with which to deal. Scientists who conduct behavioral research are often doing the hardest part of the job of determining how the brain works.
Despite this, behavioral work is often undervalued. In 1990 (or so) the Society for Neuroscience hosted a gathering at its annual meeting at which the topic was “Is there a place for behavior in neuroscience?” [Note that I no longer have programs from that meeting and I cannot find them online, so I am reconstructing the title and the year of this event from memory. Please email me at wjwilsonATalbion.edu if you can provide the details.] This was seriously discussed, and there were people present who argued that neuroscience no longer needed behavioral studies. Neuroscience as a discipline had originated at the boundary (or perhaps at the overlap) between psychology and biology, but by 1993 behavioral studies were in the minority at the meeting, with many papers and posters devoted to biochemistry, physiology, anatomy, genetics… all important, but all reductionist to the point that they cannot explain behavioral phenomena without additional studies at the level of behavior. The decision by the Nobel Assembly to recognize the work by O’Keefe, Moser, & Moser reinforces the importance of behavioral work.
Many young behavioral neuroscientists, concerned about the need to publish several papers in order to get tenure, leave behavior in favor of physiology or anatomy because those studies are easier and publications can come faster. Perhaps this Nobel Prize announcement will convince some to maintain at least an aspect of their research program squarely focused on behavior. After all, the need to behave in response to environmental cues is probably the reason we have a nervous system in the first place.