By LAWRENCE K. ALTMAN
A British-American scientist and a pair of Norwegian researchers were awarded this year’s Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine on Monday for discovering “an inner GPS, in the brain,” that makes navigation possible for virtually all creatures.
John O’Keefe, 75, a British-American scientist, will share half of the prize of 8 million kronor, or $1.1 million, in what is considered the most prestigious scientific award. May-Britt Moser, 51, and Edvard I. Moser, 52, who are married, will share the other half, said the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, which chooses the laureates.
The three scientists’ discoveries “have solved a problem that has occupied philosophers and scientists 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,” the institute said in a news release.
The positioning system in the brain that they discovered helps us know where we are, find our way from place to place and store the information for the next time, said Goran K. Hansson, secretary of the Karolinska’s Nobel Committee, in announcing the laureates.
The researchers documented that certain cells are responsible for higher cognitive function that steers the navigational system, the committee said.
Dr. O’Keefe began using neurophysiological methods in the late 1960s to study how the brain controls behavior. In 1971 he discovered the first component of the inner navigational system in rats. He identified nerve cells in the hippocampus region of the brain that were always activated when a rat was at a certain location. He called them “place cells” and showed that the cells registered not only what they saw, but also what they did not see, by building up inner maps in different environments.
Dr. O’Keefe was born in New York City and graduated from the City College of New York. He earned a Ph.D. in physiological psychology at McGill University in Montreal, in 1967, and moved for postdoctoral training to University College London, where he remains. He is a professor of cognitive neuroscience.
In 2005, the Mosers discovered a second crucial component of the brain’s positioning system by identifying another type of nerve cell that permits coordination and positioning. The scientists, who work at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim, called the cells grid cells. While mapping connections to the hippocampus in rats moving about a room in a laboratory, “they discovered an astonishing pattern of activity in a nearby part of the brain called the entorhinal cortex,” the Nobel committee said.
When the rat passed multiple locations, the cells formed a hexagonal grid. Each cell activated in unique spatial patterns. Their research showed “how both ‘place’ and ‘grid’ cells make it possible to determine position and to navigate,” the committee said.
The Mosers grew up in rural Norway and came from nonacademic families. May-Britt was born in Fosnavag and Edvard in Alesund. Although they went to the same high school, they did not know each other well until they were undergraduates at the University of Oslo. They married while they were college students and have two daughters. Both are professors at the university in Trondheim.
At one point they were visiting scientists at University College London, studying under Dr. O’Keefe.
The three also won Columbia University’s Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize last year for their discoveries.
Only a handful of married couples have shared a Nobel Prize, and the Mosers are only the second in the medicine category, which has been awarded since 1901. Fewer than a dozen women have been named laureates in medicine.
Evidence that place and grid cells exist in humans comes from recent studies using brain imaging techniques and from patients who have undergone neurosurgery.
The laureates’ findings may eventually lead to a better understanding of the spatial losses that occur in Alzheimer’s and other neurological diseases. The hippocampus and entorhinal cortex are often damaged in early stages of Alzheimer’s, with affected individuals’ losing their way and failing to recognize the environment. The findings also open new avenues for understanding cognitive processes like memory, thinking and planning, the Nobel Committee said.
According to The Associated Press, May-Britt Moser said the couple was elated. “This is such a great honor for all of us and all the people who have worked with us and supported us,” she said in a telephone interview with The A.P. “We are going to continue and hopefully do even more groundbreaking work in the future.”
Her husband was flying when the prize was announced, she said, and he later told the Norwegian news agency NTB that he learned about it when he landed and turned on his cellphone, to a barrage of messages and calls. “I didn’t know anything. When I got off the plane there was a representative there with a bouquet of flowers who said ‘congratulations on the prize,’ ” The Associated Press reported.
The laureates traditionally receive their awards at a banquet in Stockholm on Dec. 10, the anniversary of the death in 1896 of the prize’s creator, Alfred Nobel, an industrialist and inventor of dynamite.