Brain “GPS” Discovery Gets Nobel Prize
This year, the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine is being shared between three scientists, Professors Edvard and May-Britt Moser from Trondheim’s University of Science and Technology in Norway and Professor John O’Keefe from University College London. Their combined works have helped to explain not only how our brains recognise where we are, but also how we are about to navigate from one place to another.
The findings have become invaluable to science over the last 43 years, and could even lead to an explanation of why people with Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia don’t recognise their surroundings, even in a place that should be familiar to them.
Back in 1971, Professor O’Keefe was investigating the nerve cells in a rat’s brain. He noticed that when a rat was in a certain area of a room, one set of nerve cells would become activated. When the rat was moved to another part of the room, a different set of cells would become active.
He believed that these sets of nerve cells – now known as “place cells” and found in the hippocampus – formed a sort of map inside the brain. This was the first time that a specific relationship between the geography of the outside world and that inside an animal’s brain was identified.
Fast-forward to 2005, and the Professors Moser were investigating another part of the brain close to the hippocampus, called the entorhinal cortex. They found that this region harboured an even more complex system of place cells than even the hippocampus.
These cells – nicknamed “grid cells” – are arranged similarly to lines of longitude and latitude. This indicated that rather than acting like a geographical map, place cells were more reminiscent of a nautical chart, helping the brain with navigation and in judging distances.
The Nobel Assembly said that the Physiology Nobel Prize had been awarded to Professor O’Keefe and the Professors Moser because the combination of place cells and grids cells make up the brain’s internal positioning system.
The committee explained that as some brain disorders like dementia and Alzheimer’s disease affect this “GPS” system and a better understanding of the brain can only help combat these conditions, “the discoveries of place and grid cells have been a major leap forward to advance this endeavour”.
Professor O’Keefe was shocked but thrilled to hear he had jointly won the award. “It is the highest accolade you can get as a scientist,” he said, “a terrific sign of what other scientists think of the work we are doing.”
“This is crazy!” exclaimed Professor May-Britt Moser. “This is such a great honour for all of us and all the people who have worked with us and supported us.”