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Nobel Prize in medicine honors discovery of the brain's 'inner GPS'

Nobel Prize in medicine honors discovery of the brain's 'inner GPS'


Groundbreaking research could shed new light on Alzheimer's disease

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Dr. John O'Keefe, May-Britt Moser, and Edvard I. Moser have been awarded the Nobel Prize in medicine for their discovery of cells that form an "inner GPS" in human brains. O'Keefe will share the 8 million Swedish krona ($1.1 million) award with May-Britt and Edvard Moser, a husband-and-wife team from Norway. Their discoveries have shed light on how the brain maps and navigates spaces, and may lead to a better understanding of Alzheimer's disease.

O'Keefe, a professor at University College of London, made his breakthrough discovery in 1971, when he observed so-called "place cells" in rat brains. Certain nerve cells were always activated when the rats were in one part of the room, and others were activated when they moved to different areas. This led him to to the conclusion that these place cells, located in the hippocampus part of the brain, constitute a map of the space that is stored in the rats' memory.

The Mosers expanded on O'Keefe's work in 2005, when they discovered "grid cells" — nerve cells that form a coordinate system in rat brains, allowing for precise spatial navigation. These cells are located in the entorhinal cortex, near the hippocampus, and were activated when the rats moved through paths. The hexagonal grid cells work together with place cells to form a "comprehensive positioning system" that allow for recognition and navigation of environments.

Recent studies have shown that similar systems exist in human brains, as well. Understanding how the brain maps and navigates spaces could prove critical for people suffering from Alzheimer's disease, which affects the hippocampus and entorhinal cortex, leaving many patients disoriented and incapable of recognizing their surroundings.

May-Britt and Edvard Moser are both professors at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim. With today's announcement, May-Britt Moser becomes the 11th woman to receive the Nobel Prize in medicine since 1901, when the first prize was awarded. They also become the fifth husband-and-wife team to receive a Nobel Prize, joining Marie and Pierre Curie among others. Nature published a lengthy feature about their work today.