'Inner GPS' Researchers Receive Nobel Prize for Medicine

October 06, 2014

A neuroscientist in Great Britain and 2 more in Norway who built on his work received this year's Nobel Prize for medicine today for discovering brain cells that give humans a sense of place and possibly hold the key for better understanding Alzheimer's disease and other neurological disorders.

Half of the $1.1 million prize went to John O'Keefe, PhD, director of the Sainsbury Wellcome Centre in Neural Circuits and Behavior at University College London in the United Kingdom. Born in New York City and holding both American and British citizenships, Dr O'Keefe received a doctoral degree in physiological psychology from McGill University, Montreal, Quebec, Canada, in 1967.

The Nobel Assembly at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden awarded the other half of the prize to May-Britt Moser, PhD, and her husband Edvard Moser, PhD, who both received doctorates in neurophysiology at the University of Oslo, Norway, in 1995. They are professors of neuroscience at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim.

In 1971, Dr O'Keefe discovered a type of cell in the hippocampus of a rat that was activated whenever the rat was in a certain area of a room. When the rat moved to a different location, another one of these cells fired. Dr O'Keefe theorized that these "place" cells formed a cognitive map of the rat's surroundings.

Not everyone was initially sold on his findings.

"At the beginning most people were quite sceptical at the idea that you could go deep inside the brain and find things that correspond to aspects of the environment," Dr O'Keefe said in a telephone interview with a Nobel Prize official, posted on the Nobel website.

Nobel prize recipients Dr John O'Keefe (AP/Matt Dunham) and Dr May-Britt Moser and Dr Edvard Moser (AP/Drago Prvulovic).

However, his ongoing investigation of spatial navigation and memory eventually led other researchers to follow suit. Two of them, the Mosers, worked for a time as visiting scientists in Dr O'Keefe's laboratory in London. In 2005, the Mosers identified so-called "grid cells" in the entorhinal portion of a rat's brain that provide coordinates for positioning and navigation. Later research showed how place and grid cells, both found in humans, work together as an "inner GPS," as Nobel officials put it.

In an interview with a Nobel Prize official, Dr Britt-May Moser joked that as a married couple, she and her husband Edvard had the scientific advantage of "breakfast meetings almost every morning."

Two members of the Nobel Assembly, Ole Kiehn, MD, PhD, and Hans Forssberg, MD, PhD, both professors of neuroscience at the Karolinska Institute, called the discovery of place and grid cells "a major leap forward" in understanding the spatial memory loss associated with brain disorders such as dementia and Alzheimer's disease.

More information on this year's laureates in medicine is available on the Nobel Prize website.

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