Celebrating the taxi-driver brain researcher

The Wellcome Trust celebrates Eleanor Maguire and her Ig Nobel Prize-winning research about the brains of London taxi drivers:

Mapping memories – Eleanor Maguire and brain imaging

To mark the 75th anniversary of the death of Henry Wellcome and the founding of the Wellcome Trust, we are publishing a series of 14 features on people who have been significant in the Trust’s history. In our eleventh piece, ‘New Scientist’ editor Roger Highfield looks at Eleanor Maguire, Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging at UCL.

…Maguire wanted to explore how our experiences, both big and humdrum, forge and sunder the vast network of connections between cells in a human brain: it is these connections that are central to who we are. And the spur that drives her on to understand them remains the same now as it was when she began her great scientific adventure in Dublin: “I still get lost in the Centre for Neuroimaging and I have been working here for 15 years…

Her first big advance came in 2000, in a study that would generate headlines worldwide, capture the public imagination and even win her a share of the highly coveted Ig Nobel Prize, a parody of the Nobel Prizes that is handed out each year for achievements that “first make people laugh, and then make them think”. Even today, she still gets hundreds of media inquiries every year to find out more about this particular piece of research.

In her first experiment for this study she scanned the brains of 16 London black-cab drivers who had spent an average of three or four years learning ‘the Knowledge’ – the entire layout of the 25 000 streets in London. What she discovered challenged the prevailing view of the brain as at best static and at worst forever shedding cells as a result of knocks, hangovers and ageing. In fact, the brain behaves like a muscle: use brain regions and they grow.

What was remarkable was that she found the taxi drivers had a larger hippocampus than control subjects, particularly on the right side. The longer they had been on the job, the larger their hippocampus. These findings seem to indicate that the hippocampus plays an important role in storing spatial memories….