Discovering the Brain’s GPS

Scientists win the 2014 Nobel Prize in Medicine for discovering the brain’s inner GPS

October 06, 2014

John O’Keefe, May-Britt Moser, and Edvard Moser share this year’s Nobel Prize in Medicine.

On Monday, three neuroscientists won the Nobel Prize in Medicine for discovering the brain’s navigation system. This inner GPS helps us find our way in the world.

The research was done by John O’Keefe, May-Britt Moser, and Edvard Moser. Their work is an important finding in neuroscience. It could help researchers understand memory loss related to Alzheimer’s disease, the Nobel Assembly said.

O’Keefe, 75, of University College London, discovered the first part of this system in 1971. He found that a type of nerve cell was always activated when a rat was at a certain place in a room. O’Keefe proved that these “place cells” were building up a map of the environment, not just registering visual input.

Thirty-four years later, in 2005, married couple May-Britt Moser and Edvard Moser identified another type of nerve cell — the “grid cell.” The cell creates a system for positioning and path-finding, the assembly said.

Spreading the News

May-Britt Moser said her 52-year-old husband didn’t immediately find out about the prize because he was flying to Munich, Germany, on Monday morning to demonstrate their research. Edvard Moser told the Norwegian news agency NTB that he learned he was a Nobel Prize winner when he landed in Munich. “I didn’t know anything. When I got off the plane there was a representative there with a bouquet of flowers who said ‘congratulations on the prize,'” he said.

Hege Tunstad, a spokeswoman at the university in Trondheim, said May-Britt Moser “needed a minute to cry and speak with her team” when she first heard the news.

“This is such a great honor for all of us and all the people who have worked with us and supported us,” she said. “We are going to continue and hopefully do even more groundbreaking work in the future.”

Moving Forward

The Nobel Assembly said the discoveries will help scientists’ understand how specialized cells work together to perform complex tasks. It opens doors for understanding memory, thinking, and planning.

“Thanks to our grid and place cells, we don’t have to walk around with a map to find our way each time we visit a city because we have that map in our head,” said Juleen Zierath, chair of the medicine prize committee. “I think, without these cells, we would have a really hard time to survive.”

Swedish industrialist Alfred Nobel created Nobel Prizes to celebrate cultural and/or scientific advances. The first ones were first awarded in 1901.  Each year the winners collect their awards on Dec. 10, the anniversary of Nobel’s death in 1896.

All three Nobel laureates for medicine will split the Nobel prize money of 8 million Swedish kronor (about $1.1 million U.S. dollars). The Nobel awards in physics, chemistry, literature, and peace will be announced later this week and the economics prize will be announced next Monday. 

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