American-British John O’Keefe and Norwegian husband and wife team May-Britt Moser and Edvard Moser won this year’s Nobel Prize for Medicine for their discoveries of cells that form a positioning system in the brain.
“Their research has given man a better understanding of how we orient ourselves in space, demonstrating the cellular basis for higher cognitive function,” the award-giving body said in a statement on Monday.
In 1971, O´Keefe discovered the first component of the brain’s positioning system. He found that a type of nerve cell in an area of the brain called the hippocampus that was always activated when a rat was at a certain place in a room.
Other nerve cells were activated when the rat was in other areas of the room.
O´Keefe concluded that these “place cells” formed a map of the room.
More than three decades later, in 2005, May-Britt and Edvard Moser discovered another key component of the brain’s positioning system.
They identified another type of nerve cells, which they called “grid cells”, that generate a coordinate system and allow for precise positioning and pathfinding.
Their subsequent research showed how place and grid cells make it possible to determine position and to navigate.
Half of the 8 million Swedish kronor (US$1.2 million) prize will go to O’Keefe while the other half will be shared by the Mosers.
O’Keefe is director of the Sainsbury Wellcome Center in Neural Circuits and Behavior at the University College London. The Mosers are both based in scientific institutes in the Norwegian town of Trondheim.
Medicine is the first of the Nobel prizes awarded each year, Reuters reported. It will be followed by the announcement of the physics prize on Tuesday, the chemistry prize Wednesday and the economics prize on Oct. 13. The prize for literature will be awarded on a date to be announced later.
The Nobel Peace Prize will be awarded on Friday, the report said.
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