The Nobel Prize of Medicine 2014 was awarded to the American John O’Keefe and Norwegian couple Edvard and May-Britt Moser, Announced the Nobel at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden committee. These scientists received the priced for their “discovery of cells that constitute a positioning system in the brain.”
Their discoveries explain how the brain creates the brain creates a map of the surrounding and how can we navigate our way through a complex environment, which is of fundamental importance in medical, psychological and philosophical subjects.
In 1971, O’Keefe, Director of the Sainsbury Wellcome Centre in Neural Circuits and Behaviour at University College London (UCL), discovered in animal models a type of nerve cells in a brain area called hippocampus, which always activated when a rat was in a particular location in a room. When the rat changed its location, different nerve cells activated. O’Keefe concluded that these ‘place cells’ formed the map of the room in the brain.
More than three decades later, in 2005, May-Britt, Director of the Centre for Neural Computation of Trondheim, and Edvard Moser, Director of the Kavli Institute for Systems Neuroscience in Trondheim, Sweden, discovered another key component of the positioning system of the brain. They identified another type of nerve cell that called ‘grid cells’. They generate a coordinate system, allowing precise positioning and pathfinding. Subsequent research showed how place and grid cells make it possible to determine position and to navigate.
According with the Nobel Assembly, “Place and grid cells exist also in humans. In patients with Alzheimer’s disease, the hippocampus and entorhinal cortex are frequently affected at an early stage, and these individuals often lose their way and cannot recognize the environment. Knowledge about the brain’s positioning system may, therefore, help us understand the mechanism underpinning the devastating spatial memory loss that affects people with the disease.”