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Nobel Prize for Medicine Goes to Trio Who Discovered Brain's Inner GPS

Image: Nobel Prize for Medicine Goes to Trio Who Discovered Brain's Inner GPS
Combo of pictures taken on October 6, 2014 of British-American researcher John O'Keefe (C), Norwegian neuroscientist Edvard Moser (R) and his wife May-Britt Moser (L) just after winning the 2014 Nobel Medicine Prize. (Adrian Dennis, Ned Alley, Tobias Hase/AFP/Getty Images)

By    |   Monday, 06 Oct 2014 12:45 PM

The Nobel Prize for medicine went to a U.S.-British scientist and a husband-and-wife research team from Norway on Monday for unraveling the brain's GPS, or inner navigation system — a discovery that could lead to advances in diagnosing Alzheimer's.

The research by John O'Keefe, May-Britt Moser, and Edvard Moser represents a "paradigm shift" in neuroscience that could help researchers understand the sometimes severe spatial memory loss associated with Alzheimer's disease, the Nobel Assembly said.

"This year's Nobel Laureates have discovered a positioning system, an 'inner GPS' in the brain, that makes it possible to orient ourselves in space," the assembly said, according to The Associated Press.

O'Keefe, 74, a dual U.S. and British citizen at the University College London, discovered the first component of this system in 1971 when he found that a certain type of nerve cell was always activated when a rat was at a certain place in a room. He demonstrated that these place cells were building up a map of the environment, not just registering visual input.

Decades later, in 2005, May-Britt and Edvard Moser, married neuroscientists at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim, identified another type of nerve cell — the grid cell — that generates a coordinate system for precise positioning and path-finding, the assembly said.

Monday's award was the fourth time that a married couple has shared a Nobel Prize and the second time in the medicine category.

"This is crazy," an excited May-Britt Moser, 51, told the AP by telephone from Trondheim.

"This is such a great honor for all of us and all the people who have worked with us and supported us," she said. "We are going to continue and hopefully do even more groundbreaking work in the future."

Her 52-year-old husband didn't immediately find out about the prize because he was flying Monday to the Max Planck Institute in Munich to demonstrate their research. Edvard Moser only discovered he had won after he landed in Munich, turned on his cellphone and saw a flood of emails, text messages and missed calls.

"It's a great moment. I am grateful to everyone who has contributed to this, including everyone who is and has been in our lab," he said later Monday. "And it shows that it is possible to create good science, if you do it in the right way. I think it's a big stimulation for science both at home in Norway and throughout the world."

The Nobel Assembly said the discoveries marked a shift in scientists' understanding of how specialized cells work together to perform complex cognitive tasks. They have also opened new avenues for understanding cognitive functions such as memory, thinking and planning.

"Thanks to our grid and place cells, we don't have to walk around with a map to find our way each time we visit a city, because we have that map in our head," said Juleen Zierath, chair of the medicine prize committee. "I think, without these cells, we would have a really hard time to survive."

O'Keefe told the AP he was working at home when his office called to say "there's a gentleman from Sweden who wants to have a word with you."

"Before I called him, I took a long, deep breath," O'Keefe said, speaking at his office at University College London.

O'Keefe was born in Harlem and raised in the South Bronx. "If you can survive the South Bronx, you can survive anything," he said.

He moved to England for postdoctoral training and found the place cells in a part of the brain called the hippocampus. The Mosers, meanwhile, identified the grid cells in a nearby section of the brain known as the entorhinal cortex.

O'Keefe said his work could be used as a basis for investigating Alzheimer's.

"So we can not only use brain imaging to see the earliest signs of the disease in this part of the brain, but we can begin to see how it is affecting their memory, particularly their spatial memory," he said.

David Foster, a neuroscientist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, said O'Keefe's discovery of place cells was controversial in 1971 but became widely accepted over the next few decades.

"He founded the field," Foster said.

Joshua Jacobs, who studies place and grid cells in humans at Drexel University in Philadelphia, said with further understanding of how the internal GPS system works, scientists may be able to develop drugs or devices to help people with Alzheimer's who have lost their ability to navigate.

"It's a little far off," he said. "We're not doing that yet, but that is one payoff that could come from this."

All three Nobel laureates won Columbia University's Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize last year for their discoveries. They will split the Nobel prize money of 8 million Swedish kronor (about $1.1 million), with half to O'Keefe and the other half to the Mosers.

The Nobel awards in physics, chemistry, literature, and peace will be announced later this week and the economics prize will be announced next Monday. Created by Swedish industrialist Alfred Nobel, the Nobel Prizes were first awarded in 1901. The winners collect their awards on Dec. 10, the anniversary of Nobel's death in 1896.

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The Nobel Prize for medicine went to a U.S.-British scientist and a husband-and-wife research team from Norway on Monday for unraveling the brain's GPS, or inner navigation system — a discovery that could lead to advances in diagnosing Alzheimer's.
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