Professor John O’Keefe of UCL has won the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine for his work on the human brain’s internal positioning system, showing how we can navigate through our surroundings and form a mental map of our environment. Professor O’Keefe shared the prize with May-Britt Moser and Edvard Moser, both of whom were trained at O’Keefe’s laboratory.
The Nobel Assembly praised the work by the three scientists, saying: “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 does the brain create a map of the space surrounding us and how can we navigate our way through a complex environment?”
The discoveries by the three scientists enabled them to understand how mammals can comprehend, and navigate through, environments.
In 1971, Professor O’Keefe discovered the first component to the ‘brain’s GPS’ by studying the nerve activity in rats as they moved around. O’Keefe found that for each specific location that the rat occupied a different set of nerve cells were activated. These cells were named ‘place cells’, as the cell was only active in a certain place in the environment. Professor O’Keefe concluded that place cells in the hippocampus create multiple internal maps that give information about the environment.
The Mosers developed O’Keefe’s work in 2005 when they identified that cells in the entorhinal cortex, a separate part of the brain, act like a nautical chart and allow for exact positioning and path finding. These cells are known as ‘grid cells’.
Taken together with ‘place cells’, the Nobel Assembly said that the research “constitutes a comprehensive positioning system, an inner GPS, in the brain”.
Professor O’Keefe is the 29th person to have studied or taught at UCL to have been awarded a Nobel Prize.
Image: Per Henning/NTNU via Wikipedia