Brain’s “Inner GPS” Wins Nobel

John O’Keefe, May-Britt Moser, and Edvard Moser have won the 2014 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine “for their discoveries of cells that constitute a positioning system in the brain.”

Oct 6, 2014
Molly Sharlach and Tracy Vence

Left to right: John O’Keefe; May-Britt Moser, Edvard MoserUCL, DAVID BISHOP; WIKIMEDIA, THE KAVLI INSTITUTE/NTNU

John O’Keefe, May-Britt Moser, and Edvard Moser have won the 2014 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine “for their discoveries of cells that constitute a positioning system in the brain.”

O’Keefe, a professor of cognitive neuroscience at University College London, will receive one half of this year’s prize. Husband-and-wife team May-Britt and Edvard Moser, both professors at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), will share the second half.

Together identifying an inner positioning system within the brain, O’Keefe is being honored for his discovery of so-called place cells, while the Mosers are recognized for their later work identifying grid cells.

“The discoveries of John O’Keefe, May-Britt Moser and Edvard Moser have solved a problem that has occupied philosophers and scientists for centuries,” the Nobel Foundation noted in its press release announcing the award: “How does the brain create a map of the space surrounding us and how can we navigate our way through a complex environment?”

Menno Witter, the Mosers’ colleague at NTNU’s Kavli Institute for Systems Neuroscience/Centre for Neural Computation, first met the pair in the 1990s when they were students at the University of Oslo; Witter was an assistant professor at VU University Amsterdam. 
 
Their work “is a very important contribution in terms of understanding at least part of the neural code that is generated in the brain that allows species—probably including humans—to navigate,” Witter told The Scientist. “We’re all very, very pleased, because it to us shows that what we’re doing . . . as a whole community is considered to be really important and prestigious. It is also, I think, a fabulous sign to the world that Norwegian science is really at a top level.”
 
Francesca Sargolini, a cognitive neuroscientist at Aix-Marseille University in France, worked with the Mosers when she was a postdoc. The lab had a “wonderful, stimulating atmosphere,” Sargolini told The Scientist. Discoveries made by O’Keefe and the Mosers have helped researchers understand “how the brain computes . . . information to make a representation of spaces, so we can use that information to move around in the environment and do what we do every day,” she added.
 
“This is a very well-deserved prize for John [O’Keefe] and the Mosers,” said Colin Lever, a senior lecturer in the department of psychology at Durham University in the U.K., who earned a PhD and continued postdoctoral research in O’Keefe’s lab.
 
“This is a fascinating area of research,” Lever continued. “What we’re discovering about the brain through spatial mapping is likely of greater consequence than just for understanding about space. . . . Indeed, it seems to support autobiographical memory in humans.”
 
Update (October 6, 11:57 a.m.): O’Keefe and Lynn Nadel met as graduate students at McGill University in Montreal. In 1978, when Nadel was a lecturer at University College London, the two coauthored the seminal book The Hippocampus as a Cognitive Map. “We pursued the spatial map story for some years together, and we still do so separately,” Nadel, who is now a professor of psychology at the University of Arizona, told The Scientist. “From my point of view, this award really recognizes the whole enterprise of looking at cognition in terms of brain function,” he added. “It’s pretty cool.”

Correction (October 6, 9:58 a.m.): This article has been updated to correct Witter's previous affiliation; he was at VU University Amsterdam when he first met the Mosers.