The 2014 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine has been awarded to U.S.-British scientist John O'Keefe and Norwegian couple May-Britt and Edvard Moser for discovering the brain's internal positioning system.

The discovery answered a question that vexed scientists and philosophers 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?

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The first clue was unveiled by O'Keefe back in 1971. He discovered the first component of this internal positioning system — a type of nerve cell that resides in the hippocampus. While studying rats, O'Keefe noticed that these cells were always activated when a rat was at a certain place in a room. Other nerve cells were activated when the rat was elsewhere. He concluded that these "place cells" formed a map of the room.

Fast forward three decades to 2005 and the work of May-Britt and Edvard Moser. This husband-and-wife team (one of only a few married couples to ever win the Nobel Prize, a select group that includes Marie and Pierre Curie) identified another type of nerve cell in the entorhinal cortex region in brains of rats, which they called "grid cells," that generate a coordinate system and allow for precise positioning and pathfinding. Their subsequent work demonstrated how place and grid cells make it possible to determine position and to navigate.

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The finding is poised to help our understanding of what causes loss of spatial awareness in stroke patients or those with debilitating brain diseases such as dementia, including Alzheimer's.

The Nobel Assembly awarded the prize of 8 million Swedish crowns ($1.1 million) in an announcement earlier today at Sweden's Karolinska Institute. This prize is the first of the Nobels to be awarded this year.

Here are their key publications:

  • O'Keefe, J., and Dostrovsky, J. (1971). The hippocampus as a spatial map. Preliminary evidence from unit activity in the freely‐moving rat. Brain Research 34, 171-175.
  • O´Keefe, J. (1976). Place units in the hippocampus of the freely moving rat. Experimental Neurology 51, 78-109.
  • Fyhn, M., Molden, S., Witter, M.P., Moser, E.I., Moser, M.B. (2004) Spatial representation in the entorhinal cortex. Science 305, 1258-1264.
  • Hafting, T., Fyhn, M., Molden, S., Moser, M.B., and Moser, E.I. (2005). Microstructure of spatial map in the entorhinal cortex. Nature 436, 801-806.
  • Sargolini, F., Fyhn, M., Hafting, T., McNaughton, B.L., Witter, M.P., Moser, M.B., and Moser, E.I. (2006). Conjunctive representation of position, direction, and velocity in the entorhinal cortex. Science 312, 758-762.

Illustration and layout: Mattias Karlen/Nobel Prize. Top image via AP.