Trio get medicine Nobel for finding brain's 'GPS'

Trio get medicine Nobel for finding brain's 'GPS'

Research may help find cure for Alzheimer's

Trio get medicine Nobel for finding brain's 'GPS'

British-American researcher John O’Keefe and Norwegian couple Edvard and May-Britt Moser on Monday won the Nobel Prize in Medicine for discovering a positioning system in the brain.

The jury said the trio earned the coveted prize for discovering an “inner GPS”, which enables us to orient ourselves in space. Their findings will have implications for research in Alzheimer’s and other diseases of the brain.

“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 the brain creates a map of the space surrounding us and how we can navigate our way through a complex environment,” it said.

In 1971, O’Keefe discovered the first component of the system after finding that lab rats had specific cells in the hippocampus that get triggered at a specific location in a room. Other nerve cells were activated when the rat was at other places, leading O’Keefe to the conclusion that “place cells” were responsible for forming a map of the room.

Over three decades later, in 2005, May-Britt and Edvard Moser discovered another piece of the brain’s invisible positioning system. They identified “grid cells”, neurons that generate a coordinated system, which enable the brain to precisely position places and find paths. Research in grid cells gives insight into how memories are created and explains why we often have to picture a location in our minds to recall events.

The jury pointed out that the trio’s research is relevant for sufferers of Alzheimer’s disease, who often lose their way and cannot recognise environments. “Knowledge about the brain’s positioning system may, therefore, help us understand the mechanism underpinning the devastating spatial memory loss that affects people with this disease,” it said.

When the Nobel Foundation told her about winning the prize, May-Britt Moser said she was “in shock” and that her husband did not know yet as he was on a plane to Munich. The jury said the work had led to a “paradigm shift” in understanding how groups of specialised cells work together in the brain. The question of place and navigation has occupied philosophers for centuries.

In a comment, Andrew King, a professor of neurophysiology at Britain’s University of Oxford, said O’Keefe had revolutionised scientists’ understanding. “This work highlights the importance of electrophysiological studies in animals and gives major insight into how the brain works.”