The Biology of Memory

When Edvard Moser started university in the mid 1980s, neuroscience degree programmes didn't exist in Norway or in most countries. So, driven by a desire to understand how the brain works in biological terms, he chose psychology instead and went on to a distinguished career studying fundamental questions in neuroscience.

The days when universities didn't offer neuroscience degrees are long past; over the last two decades research in neuroscience has taken off, and it continues to fire at a pace that is positively neuronal. Moser's career has kept pace in the time since the field's--and his own--early days. Today, Moser is the director of the Centre for the Biology of Memory in Trondheim, in the middle of Norway, where he is also a professor of neuroscience. If you want to ask important questions in neuroscience, Moser believes, it helps to have a varied research background in a range of relevant sub-disciplines. Then he says "you can combine slightly different theoretical and technical approaches."

He also feels advances in neuroscience—in fact in any creative discipline—are more likely to occur when researchers combine distinct pieces of knowledge. Call it the network model of research: as new contacts form among neurons, a network develops that supports an ever-expanding quantity of information and ideas. It's a strategy that has expanded his own research horizons. It is the foundation on which he has built his career.

While pursuing his psychology degree at the University of Oslo, Moser became interested in how the brain functions. He was especially intrigued at how events at the synapse may explain phenomena in cognitive psychology, a field of psychology that concerns itself with perception, attention, memory, language, and other processes that underlie complex behaviour. Experimental cognitive psychology goes back to the end of the 19th century when Hermann Ebbinghaus discovered many of the fundamental principles of human memory.

During the first half of the 20th century, the factors that control learning and memory in animals were studied but the biological basis of the observations was poorly understood. In the 1980s, the application of neuroscience to understanding memory was emerging and "it was as a huge and exciting challenge," says Moser. Before finishing his undergraduate degree, he had made up his mind to go into neuroscience research.

In 1991, Moser started his Ph.D. in the lab of Per Andersen at the University of Oslo. The group was investigating long-term memory at the neurophysiological level. Moser demonstrated a number of changes in the strength of connections between nerve cells--a phenomenon called synaptic plasticity--in the hippocampus as rats stored information in their long-term memory. Moser's approach--risky at the time, he says--merged psychology with physiology, investigating synaptic plasticity by recording neural signals from intact mammalian brains. "It was a great place to start: there was a lot of international collaboration and important discoveries were made."

In 1994, Moser and his wife, May-Britt Moser, who did her Ph.D. in same lab--her focus was on anatomical changes accompanying learning where Edvard's was in synaptic electrical signals--moved to the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, to take up postdoc positions. They worked in Richard Morris's group at the Centre for Neuroscience studying the role of long-term potentiation in the hippocampus for spatial learning.

At the end of the second year, they moved to John O'Keefe's group at University College of London where, Moser says, he expanded his knowledge by learning to record electrical signals from individual neurons in the hippocampus. Upon finishing their postdocs in 1996, the duo was offered second postdoc positions at Bruce McNaughton and Carol Barnes's memory and hippocampus group at the University of Arizona in Tucson.

The Mosers never took up these positions because at the same time they were both were offered associate professorships in biological psychology at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) in Trondheim. Although Moser feels it was a pity they had to cut short their postdoc time abroad, this career opportunity was so extraordinary that there was no question but that they would return to Norway to take up their faculty positions.

Moser's career has gone from strength to strength ever since. In 1998, he was awarded a full professorship in neuroscience at NTNU. In 2002, he became the director of the Centre for the Biology of Memory at NTNU, one of 13 prestigious "Centres of Excellence" funded by the Norwegian Research Council. The Centre for the Biology of Memory has a budget of €35 million over 10 years.

Moser's wife is co-director of the centre and together they run a lab of 25-30 staff. Though many researchers find that being part of a dual-research-career couple can force one person to compromise, in the Mosers' case their research interests have been an unqualified advantage. "It allowed us to build up the group slowly. Being two we can have a broader research focus and still know what is going on," Moser explains. "In our cases, it was easier as we were offered jobs in same department. For couples with unrelated disciplines, I think it is much harder."

The couple's current research investigates how memory is encoded and retrieved and how clusters of neurons in the hippocampus co-operate to do this. "One of our greatest goals is to learn more about how the concerted activity in groups of nerve cells contains information," explains Moser.

Having secured his own faculty position and established a prolific research group, Moser is now in a position to offer advice to the next generation. First of all, Moser believes that breadth of experience is a big advantage and advises aspiring neuroscientists to accumulate experience in a range of labs and sub-disciplines. "For example, it could be an advantage to do one postdoc in slice physiology and another one in behavioural neurophysiology, or one postdoc on computational modelling and another in an experimental discipline." Afterward, says Moser "you have the technical and the conceptual understanding to combine them." Furthermore, by going to different labs, "you learn different ways of thinking and you can create bridges between sub-disciplines and find something unexpected."

"It's an investment of course," warns Moser. "It's easier to stay in the same place or exactly the same area. But in the long run it will pay off."

Moser's second major piece of advice is to think of publishing in terms of quality and not quantity. Moser has 50 or so publications to his name, but he knows of researchers who publish more papers than that in 1 year. In the past, he believes, many funding bodies were too preoccupied by the number of publications and so, too, were researchers. "My advice to someone is to only publish what you really believe is an advance in the field, rather than publishing each smaller step." That way, Moser argues, when you publish a paper, people will notice.

Indeed, it seems that people pay attention when Moser communicates his research. Moser has been asked to give the Presidential Lecture at this year's Society of Neuroscience Annual Conference in Washington, D.C. "This is a series of 3 lectures; I will give one. It will be a nice way of letting people know what we are doing," he says.

Though he does not describe it as such, Moser has a third piece of crucial advice for young researchers. "There is," he says, "no way around working hard." Still, over the years "you do learn to be more efficient and focus on the [really] important things."

"When you really have discovered something, and not just done something, and you can say ‘Ah, now I know how it works.' These moments are the driving factor."

Conferences for Neuroscientists

Moser recommends several neuroscience conferences for early career researchers.

The Society for Neuroscience has a large international annual meeting. This year's conference will take place in Washington, D.C., on 12-16 November 2005. Moser warns that the conference is huge, with as many as 35,000 attendees. So study the abstract book beforehand and decide which sessions to attend.

The Federation for European Neuroscience Societies (FENS) also has an annual meeting; the next one will take place in Vienna in 2006. Moser is the chairman of the conference's programme committee for next year's conference and he believes "it will be a good meeting."

Moser also recommends attending smaller meetings that focus on a specific topic. "At the general [large] meetings there is a relatively short time for discussion; at the smaller meetings, you can go into more depth." Finally, he recommends the winter and summer schools that FENS and the European Science Foundation organise every year.

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