Three scientists win ‘Nobel Prize for Medicine’ for discovering the brain’s internal GPS

by Kolapo Olapoju

American, John O’Keefe and Norwegian couple, May-Britt and Edvard Moser, won the 2014 Nobel Prize for medicine on Monday, 6 October, for discovering the brain’s ‘internal positioning system’, which assists human beings in finding their way and giving clues to how strokes and Alzheimer’s affect the brain.

The Nobel Assembly awarded the prize of $1.1 million(N181,060,000) in an announcement at Sweden’s Karolinska Institute, announcing that the discovery solved a problem that has troubled philosophers and scientists for centuries.

According to Ole Kiehn, a Nobel committee member and professor in the Department of Neuroscience at Karolinska Institute, “the three scientists had found an inner GPS that makes it possible to know where we are and find our way”.

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O´Keefe, director at the ‘Center in Neural Circuits and Behavior at University College London’, discovered the first component of the positioning system in 1971, after realizing 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.

He also found that other nerve cells were activated when the rat was in other positions, which led him to conclude that these “place cells” formed a map of the room.

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The couple, Edvard Moser and May-Britt Moser, who are based in scientific institutes in the Norwegian town of Trondheim, worked with O’Keefe in 1996 to learn how to record the activity of cells in the hippocampus.

In 2006, the Moser team discovered cells, in the entorhinal cortex region in brains of rats, which function as a navigation system. Their discovery, “grid cells” are constantly working to create a map of the outside world and are responsible for animals’ knowing where they are, where they have been, and where they are going.

The finding, was able to explain how the brain works but does not have immediate implications for new medicines, since it does not set out a mechanism of action.

Scientists and experts believe that knowledge about the brain’s ‘internal positioning system’ will help understand the causes of loss of spatial awareness in stroke patients or those with devastating brain diseases like dementia, which commonly manifests as Alzheimer’s and affects over 44 million people worldwide.

Speaking on the discovery, Andrew King, a professor of neurophysiology at Britain’s University of Oxford, said, “The discovery revolutionized our understanding of how the brain knows where we are and is able to navigate within our surroundings.”

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