- 07 October 2014
John O’Keefe, May-Britt Moser and Edvard Moser have been awarded the 2014 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, for their discoveries of specific cells that control the brain’s 'GPS system'.
O’Keefe, a professor of cognitive neuroscience at University College London, discovered how ‘place cells’ in the brain’s hippocampus help us navigate and store memories in space and time. The area is one of the first to show signs of damage in Alzheimer’s patients and O’Keefe’s work will help in understanding the mechanism behind the spatial memory loss that affects people with the disease.
Dr Mark Downs, chief executive of the Society of Biology said:
"O’Keefe began his research over forty years ago, by asking really fundamental open questions about the brain; How do we know where we are? How do we know where to go?
"Today’s tribute shows that by asking the big questions in biology, we can continue to deliver insights into relevant and pressing issues such as those presented by dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
"We are delighted to see the Nobel Prize awarded to a scientist working in the UK. This underlines the importance of maintaining our infrastructure and skills to drive excellence in biology, and attract the best in the world to work here."
Professor O'Keefe, a dual British-US citizen, started his career at McGill University in Canada before moving to University College London.
He showed in 1971 that a set of nerve cells became active whenever a rat was in one location in a room and a different set of cells were active when the rat moved to a different area.
He argued that these place cells, located in the hippocampus, form a map in the brain.
Professor May-Britt Moser and Professor Edvard Moser later discovered that these place cells, together with grid cells in the entorhinal cortex, constitute a coordinate system that allows for spatial navigation.
Recent investigations with brain imaging techniques, as well as studies of patients undergoing neurosurgery, have provided evidence that place and grid cells also exist in humans.
In patients with Alzheimer's disease, the hippocampus and entorhinal cortex are frequently affected at an early stage, and these individuals then begin to lose their way and cannot recognize their environment.
Knowledge about the brain's positioning system may help us understand the mechanism behind these changes.