'Inner GPS' discovery wins scientists Nobel prize

Alok Jha

Former Science Correspondent

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

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.

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.

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.