Brain’s inner GPS wins Nobel medicine prize for three scientists

John O’Keefe, May-Britt Moser and Edvard Moser have won the prize for discoveries of cells that constitute a positioning system in the brain


A giant screen displays the image of British-American researcher John O’Keefe and Norwegian duo May-Britt Moser and Edvard I Moser at a press conference of the Nobel Committee. Photo: AFP
A giant screen displays the image of British-American researcher John O’Keefe and Norwegian duo May-Britt Moser and Edvard I Moser at a press conference of the Nobel Committee. Photo: AFP

London: The discovery of cells in the brain that make up humans’ internal global-positioning system won the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for three scientists.

John O’Keefe, a professor of cognitive neuroscience at University College London who holds US and UK citizenship, and May-Britt Moser and Edvard I. Moser, both Norwegians, will share the 8 million-krona ($1.1 million) prize, the Nobel assembly said on Monday in Stockholm. O’Keefe will receive half the amount, and the Mosers, who are married, will share the rest.

“It is such a shock,” May-Britt Moser said by telephone from Trondheim, Norway. Her husband Edvard was on a flight to Munich and still didn’t know the news, she said. They’ve been collaborating on research since 1983 and established their laboratory in Trondheim in 1996, she said. “This is a prize for the whole community.”

O’Keefe in 1971 found that a type of nerve cell in the hippocampus area of the brain was always activated when a rat was at a certain place in a room, the Nobel assembly said in a statement. Other cells were active when the rat was in a different place, he found. He dubbed the cells “place cells,” the assembly said. In 2005, the Mosers discovered another component of the positioning system, nerve cells that generate a coordinate system and make precise positioning possible, according to the statement.

Cell’s transporters

Last year’s Nobel prize for medicine was awarded to three US scientists—James Rothman, Randy Schekman and Thomas C. Suedhof—for detailing how a cell’s transporters navigate and drop off hormones and other molecules, opening avenues of research into treatments for diabetes as well as neurological and immune disorders.

Annual prizes for achievements in physics, chemistry, medicine, peace and literature were established in the will of Alfred Nobel, the Swedish inventor of dynamite, who died in 1896. The Nobel Foundation was established in 1900 and the prizes were first handed out the following year.

An economics prize was created almost seven decades later in memory of Nobel by the Swedish central bank. Only the peace prize is awarded outside Sweden, by the five-member Norwegian Nobel Committee in Oslo.

The Nobel Prize in physics will be announced on Tuesday. Bloomberg

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