Nobel Prize for medicine goes to discoverers of brain’s 'inner GPS'

Mon Oct 6, 2014 6:33pm EDT
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By Mia Shanley and Kate Kelland

STOCKHOLM/LONDON (Reuters) - British-American John O'Keefe and Norwegians May-Britt and Edvard Moser won the 2014 Nobel Prize for medicine for discovering the brain's navigation system and giving clues as to how strokes and Alzheimer's disrupt it.

The Nobel Assembly, which awarded the prize of 8 million Swedish crowns ($1.1 million) at Sweden's Karolinska Institute on Monday, said the discovery solved a problem that had occupied philosophers and scientists for centuries:

"How does the brain create a map of the space surrounding us and how can we navigate our way through a complex environment?"

Ole Kiehn, a Nobel committee member and professor in Karolinska's neuroscience department, said the three scientists had found "an inner GPS that makes it possible to know where we are and find our way".

O'Keefe, now director at the center in neural circuits and behavior at University College London (UCL), discovered the first element of the positioning system in 1971 when he found that a type of nerve cell in a brain region called the hippocampus was always activated when a rat was in a certain place in a room.

Seeing that other nerve cells were activated when the rat was in other positions, O´Keefe concluded that these "place cells" formed a map of the room.

Uta Frith, a UCL professor of cognitive development said O'Keefe had shown "it is possible to literally map the mind".

"He has done much more than discovering neuronal mechanisms in the brain: he has discovered cognitive mechanisms that explain how human beings and other animals navigate," she said. "This beautiful work is heralding a new age of exploration of brain and mind."   Continued...

Professor John O'Keefe (C) walks along Euston Road on his way to a news conference in London October 6, 2014. REUTERS/Suzanne Plunkett