I have to say, I'm totally delighted and thrilled, and as I was saying out there, I'm probably still in a state of shock, so if I sound like I'm in a state of shock, it's because I am in a state of shock – it's a terrific accolade. It is the highest accolade you can get and I think it's a terrific sign of the way the world thinks about the work –
I think about the work we've been doing and about British neuroscience, and I have to thank UCL – UCL has been a terrific place to be, and has been very good to me and allowed me to do the science that we're all here celebrating. We knew from work by Brendan Milner that damage to this part of the brain that I've studied my for my whole career – the hippocampus and surrounding areas in humans – led to a profound loss of memory, a profound amnesia, so had that basic clue.
We had the idea that the hippocampus and perhaps areas that connected with it, were actually involved in
memory. So I thought, okay we now have techniques, which I was partly involved in developing, for actually looking at and listening to the activity of single cells in an animal such as a rat, as they were doing simple memory tasks, and that's what I decided to do. When I went into this part of the brain, I hadn't the slightest idea and no one else had the slightest idea that it was going to end up being a spatial memory system, and that was the great surprise – the great
surprise was not that it was a memory system, but that it in animals such as rats and mice, it's
dedicated to memories for spatial events. And when I saw the cells that were responding when the animal went to one part of the room not the other part of the room, and recorded from several of these and found that one would be interested in this part of the room, and another in that part of the room, then I a realised that if you put them altogether, you would have something like a map, and that would be a really super thing to have, to find your way around, to remember what you had done in particular places and particular
So I remember that that was a point at which I thought, 'hmm, this could be an important finding'. So when we first discovered the place cells and realised that different cells respond to different places, I thought
wouldn't it be neat if they knew about each other and there
was some way in which there was a neural system for
communicating from one to the other and for providing information about the
spatial relationships between the cells. So if I know that I will be here and I
know that I want to go over here, then what I really would like to know is
some information about the distance and direction which connects these two places.
supposed even early on that there would be other
spatial signals in this system – there would be signals which were representing directions in an environment – how do you go in this direction – and I don't mean just north and south in terms of geomagnetism, I mean ways in which you could actually go
for example to that corner of the room. And you also expect to have some sort
of metric – is there a metric system in the brain, is
there some way in which an animal, the rest of the brain knows that it is moving at a certain speed in a
certain direction and going therefore, say for a rat or mouse, say 30 centimetres per second.
And so we suggested
that that might be there, and we now know we have been idle for the last the
last 40 years, but our lab and many other labs around the
world have discovered these other spatial signals, so we know
there are cells which respond if the animal looks in a particular
direction and if you take all those cells and put them together they form a kind of compass, which says you're now looking, as it were, in the north part of the room. And then of
course there are the cells that were found by the moses, which layout this very nice grid pattern across any environment, so if you or an animal walk around this environment, they don't just respond in one place, they respond in a whole bunch of places and these individual places add up to make a very nice pattern – a hexagonal pattern – which lays out a grid structure across the whole of the environment.
So you can imagine, as you walk along from this place to another, the first position it goes 'brrp', and then it goes a little bit silent, and then it goes 'brrp' – those 'brrps' occur at regular intervals, so that other parts of the brain could say 'ah, you've gone three brrps', 'you've gone three right steps in a particular
direction'. We know there are other cells, in addition there are cells that measure how fast the animal is moving, cells which tell the animal about large landmarks, so we think we have all of the ingredients, all of the components for creating this mapping system, and if you put them together, they enable the animal to do something
very unique – they can move around the environment flexibly.
So you can always go from one place to
another by following your route; you can say, 'I'll go down to the corner, turn right, go four steps, turn left' and so on. What this system will
enable us and animals to do is to actually say, 'I want to go to Trafalgar Square – how do I do it? Well, let me go out the front door of the building here, go along Euston… oh, the police have blocked off Euston Road. I know another way', and it will enable you to then go via a totally different route, one that you hadn't anticipated, and we know this exists because we've
seen it actually operating in cab drivers, as Eleanor McGuire at UCL has shown – when a cab driver is trying to plan
a route, and to find a route to say Soho or down to Trafalgar Square, this part of the brain lights up and stays active as long as they're
planning the route. When they get to follow a very simple route, like go along Euston Road, then you don't need this part of the brain.
Simple pathways, routes where you know and have learned them over many years – you don't need this. You need this part of the brain to be flexible, to actually do something
which is novel, to do something which is unexpected, so it
could be one of the areas in the brain which actually provides us with a… …sorry. And you can build on that, in humans it's used not only for plotting routes and things like that, it's used for remembering what you did in particular places,
particular times, what you did yesterday for lunch, and it's also used to plan the future – 'what am I going to do tomorrow?', and even to make up stories image what you might do in your imaginary world. So it's the
basis for a very, very powerful cognitive
system which enables many of the important cognitive aspects
of our minds to work.
The basic message that I as a
scientist and now as someone who's leading an institute would try to convey is that I think science is part of the intellectual life of a country, it's an important part of its own sake – just the going out there and trying to
understand the world is very, very important I think in addition to that it's very important
for the economy; I think we need to have a science-based economy
and the sooner and the quicker we move to that situation, where we have basic science
which then gets translated from the laboratory into either medical cures or into industrial products, is very, very important. I think we're
making progress in Britain on developing that culture, but I think we could do a lot more, and of course we can always use more money in science, and I guess that's
the sort of message I would like to propose and that basic curiousity-driven science is very, very important – it's not only very important, it's crucial – for all of science, and we should nurture it and we should try to encourage it as much as possible, because that it in fact in the long run where our cures and our industrial power will come from.