Nobel Prize Awarded to Scientists for Discovering the Brain’s “Inner GPS”

How does the brain map our surroundings, and how does it help us navigate our complex environment?

The answer to this question, which has long baffled philosophers and scientists, was elucidated through scientific discoveries within behavioral neuroscience made in the past few decades.

Dr. John O’Keefe, a neuroscientist and alumnus of CUNY City College (Class of 1963), was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2014. He shares the prize with the Norwegian scientists May-Birtt Moser and Edvard Moser for the discovery of “cells that constitute a positioning system in the brain.” This discovery is akin to an “inner GPS” in the brain that makes it possible for us to orient ourselves in space. It demonstrates that higher cognitive function has a cellular basis for its processes.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Photo via Wikimedia Commons

O’Keefe is CCNY’s tenth Nobel laureate and CUNY’s thirteenth. He is currently Director of the Sainsbury Welcome Centre in Neural Circuits and Behavior at University College London (UCL). In 1971, O’Keefe discovered the first component of the brain positioning system when he realized that a type of neuron (nerve cell) in the hippocampus (part of the brain that stores memory) was always activated when a rat was at a certain place in a room, and other neurons were activated when the rat was at other places. O’Keefe concluded that the hippocampus forms a map of the room through these “place cells,” playing a role in the representation of the spatial environment in the brain.

Three decades later, in 2005, the Moser lab identified another group of nerve cells called “grid cells,” which generate a coordinate system and allow for precise position and navigation. In their research with rats, they found a pattern of activity in a part of the brain known as the entorhinal cortex, neighboring the hippocampus. The grid cells network with the place cells in the hippocampus by forming networks that comprise the inner GPS in the brain.

The contributions that these Nobel Laureates have made to this field are significant in advancing our understanding of cognitive processes. Higher cognitive functions such as memory, thinking, and planning involve groups of specialized cells working together to carry out these processes. This discovery may help us better investigate the mechanisms behind the devastating loss of spatial memory that affects people with brain disorders, such as dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

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