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Discoveries of Brain GPS Cells Wins Nobel Prize in Medicine
Oct 08, 2014

The 2014 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine has been awarded to British-American researcher John O Keefe, and Norwegian couple May‐Britt Moser and Edvard Moser, for their discoveries of cells that constitute a positioning system in the brain.

This year's Nobel Laureates have discovered a positioning system, an inner GPS in the brain that makes it possible to orient ourselves in space, demonstrating a cellular basis for higher cognitive function. 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. Place cells help us map our way around the world, but in humans at least they form part of the spatiotemporal scaffold in our brains that supports our autobiographical memory.

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. These grid cells are akin to lines of longitude and latitude, helping the brain to judge distance and navigate.

Keefe is currently director of the Sainsbury Wellcome Centre in Neural Circuits and Behaviour at University College London.  May‐Britt Moser and Edvard Moser work at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim. May-Britt Moser is the 11th woman to win the medicine Nobel since the award began in 1901.

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?

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