Pinpointing brain’s inner GPS leads to Nobel Prize in medicine win

Three researchers navigated their way to a win of the Nobel Prize in Medicine Monday after discovering the inner GPS located within the brain.

The research, started by scientist John O’Keefe in 1971 and continued by the husband-and-wife team of May-Britt Moser and Edvard Moser more than 30 years later in 2005, aimed to explore the mechanics of how humans were able to orient themselves in space and find their way from one place to another.

O’Keefe first observed the activation of several distinct nerve cells in the brain’s hippocampus depending on where a rat was in a certain part of a room, leading to his conclusion that those “place cells” created a map of that room. In their studies more than three decades later, the Mosers identified what they called “grid cells” in the rat’s brain, which created coordinates for “precise positioning and path-finding.” The two discoveries together constituted what the Nobel assembly called “a comprehensive positioning system, an inner GPS, in the brain.”

“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,” Juleen Zierath, chair of the Nobel medicine prize committee, said. “I think, without these cells, we would have a really hard time to survive.”

The Nobel Assembly said that knowledge of how the brain’s spatial awareness functioned could aid future understanding of the effects of Alzheimer’s disease, helping the medical field “understand the mechanism underpinning the devastating spatial memory loss” in those suffering from the disease.