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'Inner GPS' discovery wins scientists Nobel prize

This year’s Nobel prize in physiology or medicine has been awarded to a group of scientists who discovered how our brains orient us within our environment.

Or, as the Nobel committee’s citation puts it, “for their discoveries of cells that constitute a positioning system in the brain”

The 8m-Kroner award will be shared by British-American neuroscientist John O’Keefe of, University College London, and Norwegians May-Britt Moser, of the Centre for Neural Computation in Trondheim, and Edvard Moser, of the Kavli Institute for Systems Neuroscience in Trondheim.

John O'Keefe, who has been awarded the Nobel prize. Credit: University College London.

O’Keefe will receive half of the prize money and the Mosers (who are a married couple and have worked together most of the their professional lives) will share the other half.

Joint Nobel prize winners May-Britt Moser and Edvard Moser. Credit: Christian Charisius/DPA/Press Association Images.

Over the course of several decades, these three scientists worked out how our brains know where we are in space, how we store that information and how we can find our way from one place to another.

John O’Keefe talks about the discovery:

The Nobel committee called their discoveries an “inner GPS” that is the basis for many of our more complex cognitive functions such as memory, thinking and planning. In the notes accompanying today’s announcement, the committee explained the science that was being honoured:

In 1971, John O’Keefe discovered the first component of this positioning system.

He found that a type of nerve cell in an area of the brain called the hippocampus that was always activated when a rat was at a certain place in a room.

Other nerve cells were activated when the rat was at other places. O’Keefe concluded that these 'place cells' formed a map of the room.

More than three decades later, in 2005, May-Britt and Edvard Moser discovered another key component of the brain’s positioning system.

They identified another type of nerve cell, which they called 'grid cells', that generate a coordinate system and allow for precise positioning and pathfinding.

Their subsequent research showed how place and grid cells make it possible to determine position and to navigate.

The discoveries of John O’Keefe, May-Britt Moser and Edvard Moser have solved a problem that has occupied philosophers and scientists for centuries – how does the brain create a map of the space surrounding us and how can we navigate our way through a complex environment?

– The Nobel committee.

At the time the Mosers made their discovery, James Knierim, a neurobiologist at the University of Texas Medical School at Houston, explained that the hippocampus in our brains was known to store information that traced our movement through space and, by doing that, it supplied “a rich array of information that provides a context in which to place our life’s events.”

Remembering place, therefore, is crucial to remembering events.

These cells also exist in humans and, in patients with Alzheimer’s disease, it is the hippocampus and a nearby area called the entorhinal cortex (the place that the Mosers located the grid cells in the rats) that is often degraded at the early stages, which partly explains why they can often lose their way or cannot recognise where they are.