Over the course of three decades, two separate research efforts helped unwrap the questions of “how does the brain create a map of the space surrounding us and how can we navigate our way through a complex environment?”
The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was split into two halfs. The first half went to John O’Keefe, a British-American whose work in 1971 discovered that the hippocampus is a specialized region for navigating the spatial environment. While studying nerve cells in rats, O’Keefe found that different cells lit up depending on where the rats where. O’Keefe proposed that these “place cells” in the hippocampus were responsible for building up an inner map of the environment.
The second half of the Nobel Prize was award jointly to a Norwegian couple, May-Britt and Edvard Moser whose research in 2005 found that t nerve cells in the entorhinal cortex which is near the hippocampus, were activated when the rat passed certain locations. From the press release:
Here, certain cells were activated when the rat passed multiple locations arranged in a hexagonal grid. Each of these cells was activated in a unique spatial pattern and collectively these “grid cells” constitute a coordinate system that allows for spatial navigation. Together with other cells of the entorhinal cortex that recognize the direction of the head and the border of the room, they form circuits with the place cells in the hippocampus. This circuitry constitutes a comprehensive positioning system, an inner GPS, in the brain.
The pioneering research by O’Keefe and the Mosers will help understand how diseases like Alzheimers affect navigation. The hippocampus and entorhinal cortex are affected early on in Alzheimer’s patients, leading to spatial disorientation.
“The 2014 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine – Press Release”. Nobelprize.org.Nobel Media AB 2014. Web. 6 Oct 2014. <http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/medicine/laureates/2014/press.html>