Brain GPS Discovery Awarded Nobel Medicine Prize

Nobel Medicine Prize for ‘brain GPS’ discovery

A partnership between John O’Keefe and Norweigen couple May-Britt and Edvard Moser have won the 2014 Nobel Prize for medicine after they discovered the brains
internal positioning system.

The internal GPS navigation system helps humans find their way around the world, and it is hoped that by understanding this new element to the brain it could give doctors an advantage as to how strokes and Alzheimer’s disease affect the brain.

Back in 1971 O’Keefe discovered the first component of the positioning system. What he found was that there was a type of nerve cell in an area of the brain called the hippocampus. This nerve cell then became active when a rat was at a certain place in a room.

Other nerve cells then became active when the rat was at other places. O’Keefe then concluded that these ‘place cells’ formed an internal map of the room.

Over thirty years later and the Norweigen couple May-Britt and Edvard Moser discovered another key component of the brain’s positioning system. This discovery took place in 2005.

What the couple had identified was another type of nerve cell, they called this ‘grid cells’, these cells are used by the brain to co-ordinate system and allow for precise positioning and path finding.

Their subsequent research showed how place and grid cells make it possible to determine position and to navigate.

The discovery made by the three scientists, has solved a problem that has occupied philosophers and scientists such as Immanuel Kant and Edward Tolman for centuries, namely: “How does the brain create a map of the space surrounding us and how can we navigate our way through a complex environment?”

The answer, according to the research from O´Keefe, May-Britt and Moser, is the ‘inner GPS’ inherent in the human brain.

The Institute says this has been backed up by recent investigations with brain imaging techniques, as well as studies of patients undergoing neurosurgery, which have provided evidence that place and grid cells exist also in humans.

Patients who have Alzheimer’s disease, will have their hippocampus and entorhinal cortex frequently affected at an early stage, this would result in these individuals often losing their way and not being able to recognise the environment.

Therefore knowledge about the brain’s positioning system, may help researchers further 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 groups of specialised cells work together to execute higher cognitive functions. This has already opened new avenues for understanding other cognitive functions. With this discovery and research new avenues have been opened for understanding other cognitive processes, such as memory, thinking and planning.

Alex Carson

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