Three scientists were awarded this year’s Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their discovery of “an inner GPS” system in the hippocampus and the entorhinal cortex that allows complex spatial navgiation.
The three recipients of the prestigious award are John O’Keefe, a U.K. and U.S. citizen and director of the Sainsbury Wellcome Centre in Neural Circuits and Behaviour at University College London; May-Britt Moser, a Norwegian neuroscientist and director of the Centre for Neural Computation in Trondheim; and her husband Edvard Moser, a neuroscience professor and director of the Kavli Institute for Systems Neuroscience, also in Trondheim.
Their research spanning more than three decades has answered an age-old question about how “we navigate our way through a complex environment,” the Nobel Assembly at Karolinska Institutet said in a press release.
In 1971 Dr. O’Keefe discovered a network of hippocampal “place cells” that activated depending on where a rat was in an open room. In 2005 and 2006, May-Britt and Edvard Moser described how certain cells of the entorhinal cortex actviated as the rat passed through multiple locations arranged in a hexagonal grid. These “grid cells” allowed spatial navigation, they concluded.
The circuitry formed by grid and place cells “constitutes a comprehensive positioning system, an inner GPS, in the brain. The positioning system in the human brain appears to have similar components as those of the rat brain,” the Nobel Assembly said.
Understanding the mechanism of complex spatial navigation is likely to have a profound impact on Alzheimer’s disease research and on other areas where loss of spatial memory is a component of the devastating neurodegenerative disease.
Read more about May-Britt and Edvard Moser, whom Nature News dubbed “minor celebrities” in Norway for their teamwork and research at the Kavli Institute.