Nobel Prize Goes to Science Surrounding Brain's Inner GPS Cells


This year's Nobel Prize for medicine has gone to three neuroscientists for their work on brain cells that provide a sort of 'inner GPS' for humans-- work that is seen as important for the greater understanding of diseases like Alzheimer's.

British neuroscientist John O'Keefe, PhD, director of the Sainsbury Wellcome Centre in Neural Circuits and Behavior at University College London in the United Kingdom will receive half of the $1.1 million prize, and and Norwegians May-Britt Moser, PhD, and her husband Edvard Moser, PhD, will receive the other half.

Back 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. If the rat went to another location, a different one of these cells fired off. This led him to theorize that these "place" cells formed a cognitive map of the rat's surroundings.

Perhaps not surprisingly, his theory met with plenty of resistance.

"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.

Nonetheless, his theory inspired others, and in time along came the Mosers, who worked for a time as visiting scientists in Dr O'Keefe's laboratory in London. In 2005, they 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," to use the words of Nobel officials.

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.

Sources: Medscape,

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