Baylor alum leading research on ‘the brain’s GPS’
You probably don’t spend too much time thinking about your brain’s grid cells — you know, the neurons that allow us to make sense of where we are spatially and to navigate the places we go.
Dr. Lisa Giocomo, BA ’02, does. And the research she conducts at her Stanford University lab is breaking new ground in helping build a greater understanding of the grid cells that she compares to our brain’s “global positioning system.”
“Imagine your 16th birthday party,” says the Baylor alum, now an assistant professor of neurobiology at Stanford School of Medicine. “You can remember who was there, what you and they were wearing, and where you were sitting in relation to other people. The grid cell system provides the ‘where’ component, the sense of space.”
It’s those same grid cells that allow you to remember where to walk without bumping into anything if you are walking around your house in the middle of the night, or to drive a familiar route without even really stopping to think about it.
Giocomo’s expertise in this area is the evolution of an interest in psychology that began at Baylor. She worked as a counselor at the Waco V.A. Hospital, where she assisted patients being treated for mental health issues. That experience motivated her to discover the causes of mental illness and led her to study and pursue a PhD in neuroscience.
While in graduate school, she attended a speech on grid cells by Edvard Moser, a Norweigan scientist who would go on to win the 2014 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. As it turned out, he would be assisted along the way by Giocomo. Giocomo was fascinated by the speech and pursued greater study of grid cells at Boston University. She eventually moved to Norway and worked in Moser’s lab for four years before moving back to the United States to open up her own lab at Stanford in 2013; Moser won the Nobel Prize the following year.
Back in the United States, the Giocomo Lab has continued to seek to unlock the secrets of grid cells. It’s a prestigious position and a change of pace for Giocomo, who says she now spends more time mentoring staff and writing than conducting research. It’s a prestigious new platform for a Baylor grad who has rapidly made a name for herself by helping us better understand the way we process the rooms, roads and space around us.
Sic ’em, Lisa!