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Global: Nobel Prize for medicine goes to discoverers of brain’s internal GPS

2014/10/06

(Source: Reuters 2014-10-06)

Anglo-American John OKeefe and Norwegian couple May-Britt and Edvard Moser won the 2014 Nobel Prize for medicine on Monday for discovering the brains internal positioning system, helping humans find their way and giving clues to how strokes and Alzheimers affect the brain.

The Nobel Assembly, which awarded the prize of 8 million Swedish crowns ($1.1 million) in an announcement at Swedens Karolinska Institute, said the discovery 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?”

Ole Kiehn, a Nobel committee member and professor in the Department of Neuroscience at Karolinska Institute, said the three scientists had found “an inner GPS that makes it possible to know where we are and find our way”.

O´Keefe, now director at the center in neural circuits and behavior at University College London, discovered the first component of the positioning system in 1971 when he found that a type of nerve cell in a brain region called the hippocampus was always activated when a rat was in a certain place in a room.

Seeing that other nerve cells were activated when the rat was in other positions, O´Keefe concluded that these “place cells” formed a map of the room.

In 1996, Edvard Moser and May-Britt Moser, who are married and now based in scientific institutes in the Norwegian town of Trondheim, worked with O’Keefe to learn how to record the activity of cells in the hippocampus.

Nearly a decade later, the Moser team discovered cells, in the entorhinal cortex region in brains of rats, which function as a navigation system. These so-called “grid cells”, they discovered, are constantly working to create a map of the outside world and are responsible for animals knowing where they are, where they have been, and where they are going.

The finding, a fundamental piece of research, explains how the brain works but does not have immediate implications for new medicines, since it does not set out a mechanism of action.

But knowledge about the brains positioning system can also help understanding of what causes loss of spatial awareness in stroke patients or those with devastating brain diseases like dementia, of which Alzheimers is the most common form and which affects 44 million people worldwide.

“The discovery…revolutionized our understanding of how the brain knows where we are and is able to navigate within our surroundings,” said Andrew King, a professor of neurophysiology at Britains University of Oxford.

More Information on Reuters