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Brains Behind the Institute

Lisa Giocomo

Lisa Giocomo

Assistant professor of neurobiology

Whatever space you pass through—New York City, a desert, a full parking lot—your brain uses neurons called grid cells to create a map of your environment.

These grid cells are the basis of the brain's navigation system, and form a coordinate map with multiple, overlapping grids of varying detail depending on the physical area they represent. Grid cells can also potentially act as a scaffold for memories, because they keep track of your location while you are experiencing things, for example, attending your first concert.

Learning about this neural coordinate system's existence when I was a graduate student completely shifted the direction of my research. A talk by Nobel Prize winner Edvard Moser about his discovery of grid cells blew me away. I immediately saw it as a system that offered a clear link between neural activity in the brain and behavior, especially higher-level behavior. There was so much that we just didn't know, and a wide-open field of possibilities to explore.

For years, scientists thought that these grids didn’t change. But my research team and I were the first to discover that they can be distorted depending on factors such as how fast you're moving, the presence of landmarks, whether you're moving toward a goal, and more. In most cases, the coordinate system changes in such a way that makes it easier for you to navigate.

Starting from when I worked in long-term care facilities as a young adult, I've been amazed by how little we understand about how the brain remembers, imagines, navigates—cognitive processes that help define our human experience. Since then, I've been working to understand, from a cellular and biophysical basis, how the brain might actually build this coordinate system, and how it influences behavior. At the end of the day, I think it's key to pursue these questions of "How…?" and have curiosity and the joy of discovery drive your career in science.

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