Nobel Prize awarded to scientists who discovered brain's GPS

Research could help answer questions about Alzheimer's

Three European scientists have been awarded the 2014 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their research on cells that form a grid system in the brain and determine how people orient themselves.

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Experts say the research could be used to help individuals with Alzheimer's because of the parts of the brain in which those GPS cells are located. In a release, the Nobel committee said the research "represents a paradigm shift in our understanding of how ensembles of specialized cells work together to execute higher cognitive functions, " adding,  "It has opened new avenues for understanding other cognitive processes, such as memory, thinking and planning."

The three scientists—who will share the $1.2 million prize—are:

  • John O'Keefe, a British neuroscientist who is also a U.S. citizen and teaches at University College London;
  • Mary-Britt Moser, a Norwegian-born neuroscientist from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NUST); and
  • Edvard Moser, a Norwegian-born neuroscientist from NUST.

 

According to CNN, the scientists' research on the special brain cells in the hippocampus and the entorhinal cortex has helped determine how people know where they are, where they're going, and where they've been.

In 1971, O'Keefe discovered a nerve cell—called a "place cell"—in the brain of a rat that was triggered when the rat was in a specific place.

In 2005, the Mosers, who are married, identified another type of nerve cell—known as a "grid cell"—that creates a coordinate system and that allows for "precise positioning and pathfinding," according to the releases. The two later discovered how place and grid cells work in tandem so the brain knows where it is going (Brumfeld, CNN, 10/6; Altman, New York Times, 10/6; Neuman, "The Two-Way," NPR, 10/6; Gallagher, BBC News, 10/6).


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