Scientists Who Discovered the Brain's Natural GPS Won the Nobel Prize

By Adam Clark Estes on at

When you walk around a space, certain cells in your brain are quietly mapping out a grid so that you can easily navigate it. It's a lot like GPS – and we know this thanks to three scientists who just won the Nobel Prize in Medicine.

Norwegian researchers Edvard Moser and May-Britt Moser, who are married, will share the prize with British American scientist John O'Keefe, who pioneered the research over 40 years ago. O'Keefe was the first to identify so-called "place cells", specific nerve cells in the hippocampus that lit up when his lab rats arrived at specific locations. He believed correctly that these helped to form a critical component of an internal navigation system in the rats, yet his research was not widely acknowledged as being significant at the time.

Then, in 2005, Mosers followed up by discovering a second type of nerve cell. The so-called "grid cells" enabled the rats to coordinate and position themselves, much like longitude and latitude allow for precise GPS navigation. They found that these cells in rats fired in specific locations that formed a pattern or grid when viewed from above. That, in turn, gave them new insights into the brain's internal navigation system. The discovery is now being used to gain a deeper understanding of Alzheimer's Disease, of which disorientation and loss of spatial reasoning is a symptom.

The three scientists will meet in Stockholm on December 10 to receive their awards and split the $1.1 million prize. Which sounds like a truly delightful way for devoted scientists to kick off the holiday season. [Nobel]

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