The 2014 Nobel prize in physiology or medicine was recently awarded to three scientists for their discovery of brains’ cells that report animals’ position in space, which therefore is being referred to as the brain’s “internal GPS.”
The prize is divided between John O’Keefe, PhD, director of the Sainsbury Wellcome Centre in Neural Circuits and Behavior at University College London in the United Kingdom, and May-Britt Moser, PhD and her husband Edvard Moser, PhD, both professors of neuroscience at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim.
Dr. O’Keefe identified in the rat hippocampus a group of cells that would be activated every time the rat was in a specific location. Dr. O’Keefe named these “place” cells and hypothesized these cells’ activation formed a map in the brain of the rats’ surroundings.
Like many groundbreaking findings in science, Dr. O’Keefe’s bold idea was at first received by a skeptical audience, but other researchers further investigated his findings. Two of them, the Mosers, worked in O’Keefe’s laboratory in London. Their work identified activation of cells in a distinct part of the brain — the entorhinal cortex. These entorhinal “grid cells” of the brain fired up with the rats’ movement through different places. Both “grid cells” and “place” cells were then found to work together constituting the brains “inner GPS.”
A groundbreaking finding, the Nobel Prize work is particularly important for the understanding of brain disorders as Alzheimer’s disease, characterized frequently by loss of spatial memory. To this point, scientists have not fully understood how the human brain processes space and dimension. Now that this understanding is coming into focus, researchers may in turn be able to develop Alzheimer’s therapies that target this mechanism in the brain and reverse the disease’s side effects.