Nobel season is again upon us, and the first prize announced on 6th October 2014 was that for physiology or medicine. This year the award goes to a trio of researchers who between them conducted work to understand one of the greatest mysteries of neuroscience – that of how we know where we are, how can we find our way from one place to another, and how we store information on ‘directions’ so we can take the same route again. The prize was awarded to John O’Keefe (UCL) and married couple May-Britt and Edvard Moser (Trondheim) for essentially revealing the internal ‘GPS’ of our brain.
The first part of the positioning system was discovered by O’Keefe back in 1971, when he observed that certain cells within the hippocampus of the brain were always activated when a rat was in the same location in a room. So for each location, a different set of nerve cells was activated – these became known as “place cells” and they effectively formed a map of the room for the brain. Over three decades later the Mosers discovered another type of nerve cell which they termed “grid cells”, and these generate a coordinate system to allow precise path-finding to a given location. Read more on this Nobel-winning science at: http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/medicine/laureates/2014/.
As with so many medical research projects a huge amount of work was done with rats – and in my view the role of these rodents in medical advances should probably get acknowledged in its own right – perhaps it is time for a “Nibble Prize” for research rats? More recent studies on humans using MRI scanning and experimental work on neurosurgery patients, has provided the evidence that these ‘place’ and ‘grid’ cells also exist in humans. Furthermore, in those affected by cognitive impairment such as Alzheimer’s patients – the hippocampus where the positioning system is located is one of the first to show signs of deterioration.