When Norwegian May-Britt Moser began her academic career 31 years ago, she didn’t think about answering why Alzheimer’s patients are losing their sense of direction. His interest was in unraveling the basic processes of the rodent brain, studying them, and understanding their basic biology.
When she and her then-husband Edvard Moser discovered a kind of brain cell – the so-called grid cells – that act as a kind of brain GPS and store points like on a map, their research attracted worldwide attention.
“We have started to understand these mechanisms and to understand what happens when these cells die and how this affects the study of neurological diseases,” Moser said in an interview with Folha.
The research earned the ex-couple the 2014 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, which was also shared with an American researcher who discovered the location in the hippocampus of this system.
For them, basic research is fundamental, without which there would be no applied science. Perhaps the greatest discovery in science in 2020 was the Covid-19 mRNA vaccines (technologies used by Pfizer and Moderna), the result of more than three decades of study. “This is the point of basic research, because today we are laying the foundation for applied research of tomorrow,” he says.
Moser is one of the guests at the event “The Value of Science”, which is sponsored by the Brazilian Academy of Sciences and the Nobel Prize in collaboration with the Serrapilheira Institute and in which Nobel Prize Laureate Physics, Serge Haroche, also takes part. The conversation with 40 selected Brazilian university students from all regions of the country will take place on Thursday (8) at 10 a.m. and can be followed on the Nobel Prize channel on YouTube.
His research for the past 20 years has focused on understanding biological concepts in animals, particularly rodents, rather than looking closely at direct applications of the research, such as the development of new drugs to treat neurological diseases. However, his discovery is of extreme relevance to medicine. How do you see the role of basic research today?
I am happy to answer this question. It is obvious that basic research is very important because without it there is nothing to translate or apply. In my research, I was fortunate enough to examine rodent brain cells and discover problems that were relevant to us. My first question, however, was to understand how rat brains work, so rudimentary compared to ours, but in a different way, such as spatial locomotion. far above that of humans.
We have started to understand these mechanisms and what happens when these cells are damaged because one of our research developments has been to find that the grid cells are the first to die from Alzheimer’s disease. Of course, there were a lot of questions at the beginning as we were given funds to study the brains of rats and some people asked when the human benefits would appear. Today the relevance is clear, but we didn’t know about it for 30 years.
At the beginning of your career, did you feel particularly encouraged to do basic research?
No, I was never influenced or encouraged to follow a path. I decided to go my own way. And as I worked and brought more and more positive results from my research, I received recognition from my colleagues for my work. But I only started this research because I was curious, because I wanted to understand the processes that go on in the brain. And from then on I never stopped, it’s like an addiction.
How can young people feel stimulated by basic research?
I think just like I was curious, so must they be. All children are naturally curious, but sometimes that curiosity is countered by an adult who is not patient for questions. When people expect children to follow a path or make predetermined decisions instead of being carried away by that curiosity, they are not stimulated.
When you speak to people who have made incredible discoveries, it is common that they have had equally curious and encouraged people in their lives.
The human species is one of more than 1.5 million species living in the world, not including all of the as-yet-unknown microorganisms and species. We still have a lot to discover about life. What made you study mice? As a child, did you have a particular interest in nature?
I grew up on a farm, with animals everywhere, so I was very curious about what their organisms were like, what happened in a snake, why animals did that. And I wasn’t forced to follow a path that might seem more natural to me as a girl; I could exercise my curiosity and pursue this force that moved me.
Years later, I continued to be as lucky as Edvard and I could go from lab to lab looking for our research without being told I couldn’t be there. Today we are laying the foundations for the applied research of tomorrow. Applied or translated research is finite in itself, but basic research has sustainability so that people can use their knowledge for generations to come.
For example, this is the beauty of vaccines against Covid-19. Genetic recombination studies have been done on yeast for years, and many people there have discredited these scientists, but if they hadn’t followed their passion and questions, we wouldn’t have mRNA vaccines today. You have been working for years and one day the famous “Eureka” comes along.
The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of science, especially for health policy. Do you think that science will get more attention worldwide?
I wait and pray and ask for it every day. But we don’t know. Today we are at home and in some countries the climatic conditions have improved. But these actions are like pendulums, they come and go. We have to apply pressure and make demands, support science, support environmental concerns, everything that is important for the future and for ourselves.
Eyes are on these things now, but in two years can everything go back to the way it was before?
That’s right, because when there is no threat, when there is no danger, when we relax, everything will go back to normal. It is important to say that people are like machines that move these processes [da ciência]and if those machines get a lot of fuel, as it seems now [na forma de investimento]They draw more people into the process. And that’s great.
The negationist movements of science are also on the rise, including in positions of leaders of nations. What do you think of this obvious contradiction? Where do science communicators and the entire scientific community go wrong?
I don’t think we should be blamed. I think that the science communication process and the scientific process are carried out seriously every day and we should not give up. We have to resist and think that there are bad people, bad politicians, but there are also those who are doing the right thing.
One of the main criticisms of scientists against the dissemination of their research is the over-simplification of complex concepts. In such a heterogeneous science education society as Brazil, however, it is sometimes necessary to adapt the language to the basic level. What are your suggestions for improving science teaching in public education?
From my experience, I was very interested in excursions, they are very versatile. Children ask a lot of crazy questions, and the answers can be stimulating. The school with the best scientific education cannot always afford a spaceship, but the one with the most curious students and teachers. Who knows, in a few years Brazil could have its first Nobel Prize.
How has your life changed after receiving the award?
Before the Nobel Prize, my life and Edvard’s life was already hectic, we lectured frequently and traveled a lot. And at some point I said to myself: “Enough, I won’t travel anymore, I want to go back to the laboratory.” And then on October 6th, 2014 I got the call that we had won the award, and that was crazy but also fantastic.
Our discovery was the result of years of research, not because we were pursuing this goal, but because we were curious. Hearing from others, including the Nobel Committee, that what we were doing was important has been the greatest gift to us. And of course, with the value of the award, we’ve invested even more in our research. It’s about curiosity, about questions.
May-Britt Moser, 58, was born in Fosnavag, Norway. In 1990 he graduated from the University of Oslo with a degree in psychology and received his PhD in neurophysiology in 1995 from the same institution. She is currently Full Professor of Neuroscience at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology.