Scientists at UCL and NTNU awarded Nobel Prize for discovering
brain's positioning system
6 October 2014
The 2014 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine has been awarded
to Professor John O’Keefe of University College London (half the
prize) and husband-and-wife team Professors May-Britt Moser and
Edvard Moser (one quarter prize each) of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology
(NTNU) for the discovery of cells that constitute
a positioning system in the brain.
Professor O’Keefe, now Director of the Sainsbury Wellcome
Centre for Neural Circuits & Behaviour at UCL and Head of UCL Cell &
Developmental Biology, discovered the first component of this
positioning system in 1971 when he found a type of nerve cell in the
hippocampus that was activated when a rat was in one location in a
room, with a different set of cells active when the rat was in a
different location. He concluded that these ‘place cells’ formed a
map of the room.
May-Britt and Edvard Moser discovered another key component of the
brain’s positioning system. They identified another type of nerve
cell, 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. They are the first Norwegians
to be awarded the Nobel prize in medicine.
Prof John O'Keefe
Prof May-Britt Moser
Prof Edvard Moser
The importance of the discoveries is summed up by the Nobel Assembly
at Karolinska Institutet:
of John O´Keefe, May-Britt Moser and Edvard Moser have solved a problem
that has occupied philosophers and scientists for centuries — how does
the brain create a map of the space surrounding us and how can we
navigate our way through a complex environment? The sense of place and
the ability to navigate are fundamental to our existence. The sense of
place gives a perception of position in the environment. During
navigation, it is interlinked with a sense of distance that is based on
motion and knowledge of previous positions.
O’Keefe discovered that certain nerve cells were activated when the
animal assumed a particular place in the environment. He could
demonstrate that these “place cells” were not merely registering
visual input, but were building up an inner map of the environment.
O’Keefe concluded that the hippocampus generates numerous maps,
represented by the collective activity of place cells that are
activated in different environments. Therefore, the memory of an
environment can be stored as a specific combination of place cell
activities in the hippocampus.
O’Keefe was born in 1939 in New York City, USA, and holds both
American and British citizenships. He received his doctoral degree
in physiological psychology from McGill University, Canada in 1967.
After that, he moved to England for postdoctoral training at
University College London. He has remained at University College and
was appointed Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience in 1987. As
mentioned above, he is the Director of the new Sainsbury Wellcome
Centre for Neural Circuits & Behaviour at UCL and also Head of UCL
Cell & Developmental Biology.
May-Britt and Edvard Moser
and Edvard Moser were mapping the connections to the hippocampus in
rats moving in a room when they discovered an astonishing pattern of
activity in a nearby part of the brain called the entorhinal cortex.
Here, certain cells were activated when the rat passed multiple
locations arranged in a hexagonal grid. Each of these cells was
activated in a unique spatial pattern and collectively these “grid
cells” constitute a coordinate system that allows for spatial
navigation. Together with other cells of the entorhinal cortex that
recognize the direction of the head and the border of the room, they
form circuits with the place cells in the hippocampus. This
circuitry constitutes a comprehensive positioning system, an inner
GPS, in the brain.
May-Britt Moser was born in Fosnavåg, Norway in 1963. She studied
psychology at the University of Oslo together with her future
husband and co-Laureate Edvard Moser. She received her Ph.D. in
neurophysiology in 1995. She was a postdoctoral fellow at the
University of Edinburgh and subsequently a visiting scientist at
University College London before moving to the Norwegian University
of Science and Technology in Trondheim in 1996. May-Britt Moser was
appointed Professor of Neuroscience in 2000 and is currently
Director of the Centre for Neural Computation in Trondheim.
Edvard I. Moser was born in born 1962 in Ålesund, Norway. He
obtained his Ph.D. in neurophysiology from the University of Oslo in
1995. He was a postdoctoral fellow together with his wife and
co-Laureate May-Britt Moser, first at the University of Edinburgh
and later a visiting scientist in John O´Keefe´s laboratory in
London. In 1996 they moved to the Norwegian University of Science
and Technology in Trondheim, where Edvard Moser became Professor in
1998. He is currently Director of the Kavli Institute for Systems
Neuroscience in Trondheim.
Comment from NTNU:
"This is the first time the Nobel Prize in medicine has been
awarded to Norway. It is not surprising that it has been awarded to
the Moser husband-and-wife team," says Gunnar Bovim, NTNU Rector.
"Their work in neuroscience focusing on memory and sense of place
is internationally groundbreaking, and they have already won most of
the international awards that it is possible to achieve in their
field," said Bovim. "The award of the world's foremost scientific
honour at this relatively early stage of their career is a strong
statement about the level of their research. This is very inspiring
for all of us," he said.
Alzheimer's affect on awareness of positioning
Recent investigations with brain imaging techniques, as well as
studies of patients undergoing neurosurgery, have provided evidence
that place and grid cells exist also in humans. In patients with
Alzheimer´s disease, the hippocampus and entorhinal cortex are
frequently affected at an early stage, and these individuals often
lose their way and cannot recognize the environment. Knowledge about
the brain´s positioning system may, therefore, help us understand
the mechanism underpinning the devastating spatial memory loss that
affects people with this disease.
The discovery of the brain’s positioning system represents a
paradigm shift in our understanding of how ensembles of specialized
cells work together to execute higher cognitive functions. It has
opened new avenues for understanding other cognitive processes, such
as memory, thinking and planning.