This year’s Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to John O’Keefe, May-Britt Moser, and Edvard Moser, for discovering the networks of cells that form the brain’s navigational system. This fundamental work in neuroscience could have applications in Alzheimer’s and other diseases.
For hundreds of years, questions about how humans understand their location in their environment, and how they develop a sense of distance, have intrigued scientists and philosophers alike. It was 20th-century advances in psychology and neuroscience that allowed researchers to probe their questions experimentally.
Once scientists understood that rats could learn to find their way through a maze, they sought the areas of the brain responsible for this behavior. In 1971, by recording electrical signals from individual nerve cells, John O’Keefe of University College London found cells in the hippocampus region of the brain that were active only when rats were in a certain place in their environment. He concluded that the activity of these cells must form an inner map of the rat’s whereabouts and dubbed them “place cells.”
O’Keefe’s work “opened up a whole area of research about how the hippocampus contributes to memories,” says Oxford University physiologist and neuroscientist John Stein. “To navigate, you have to remember where you are.”
In 2005, May-Britt and Edvard Moser, a husband-wife team at the Norwegian University of Science & Technology, in Trondheim, built on O’Keefe’s and others’ work. They discovered that nerve cells in the entorhinal cortex, a region near the hippocampus, fire when a rat scuttled past particular locations arranged in a hexagonal grid. These “grid cells” work with place cells as well as other cells to form the brain’s positioning system.
The human brain’s spatial navigation system appears to be composed of similar nerve cells. And because the entorhinal cortex, the location of grid cells, is often damaged during the first phases of Alzheimer’s disease, the work may explain why the disease’s early symptoms include getting lost. O’Keefe’s group has more recently demonstrated that in mouse models of Alzheimer’s, place cells lose some of their precision in identifying location.
“I am still in shock,” May-Britt Moser said when a representative of the Nobel Foundation interviewed her over the phone early this morning. She said her husband, Edvard, was on a flight to Munich and so was not yet aware he had won.