Nobel Prize for the Brain’s GPS

Jan. 2, 2015

By Medical Discovery News

Nobel Prize for the Brain's GPS

How do we know where we are at any time – what is up and down? How do we know that we have been in a place before, and how do we know what to expect around the corner? This may sound like a simple task, but it is actually a complex, dynamic problem for our brains. That is why the scientists who have shed light on this system have received science’s highest honor.

The 2014 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine is awarded by the Nobel Assembly at Karolinksa Institute in Stockholm, Sweden, to recognize the most outstanding achievements in science. This year the prize was awarded to a trio of scientists who have unraveled the brain’s internal GPS system. Like it sounds, this allows us to know where we are in three-dimensional space in our environment. This year’s $1.1 million prize was split half-and-half between Dr. John O’Keefe of University College in London and Drs. May-Britt Moser of the Centre for Neural Computation in Trondheim, Norway, and Edvard I. Moser of the Kavli Institute for Systems Neuroscience in Trondheim, Norway. The Mosers are the fifth married couple to receive a Nobel. Together their work reveals the basic principles of how our brains create a figurative map of the space we occupy and how we are able use and store this information to navigate from one place to another.

In the early 1970s, O’ Keefe identified a population of nerve cells in a part of the brain called the hippocampus that activate as the result of an animal recognizing it was in a specific location. These activated brain cells were named place cells. They create a map in the brain of locations corresponding to the external environment. This means that a person’s perception of location is determined by the activation of a specific group of place cells in a precise orientation in the hippocampus. Before O’Keefe’s discovery, scientists did not have a good understanding of how humans perceived positional locations.

Over 30 years later, the Mosers took this concept to a new level. They discovered that nerves in a nearby area of the brain called the entorhinal cortex activated when rats were in known locations. These grid cells formed hexagonal patterns, which together produced a system that is the basis for positional navigation. It works like this: the grid cells sense the directional motion of the head and the dimensions of a room. This creates a network of cells in the brain, functioning much like the Global Positioning System (GPS) used in cars and phones. This brain network tells you where you are, the direction you are moving, and what to expect in the environment ahead. Consider how difficult it would be to walk around your neighborhood without this type of information available to you. Just like with a GPS, recalculating is something the brain does all the time.

The Nobel Committee for Physiology or Medicine, which has awarded 105 prizes to 207 laureates since 1901, has once again identified a significant scientific contribution that has a profound impact on our understanding of how we function as human beings.

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