How do you know where you are right now? Not only where you are physically (in a room or outside), but how you got to this location? Obviously your brain remembers this information, even if you don’t precisely recollect the details of your movements. For decades, neuroscientists have worked to identify the cellular basis of how we know our location.
Today, three researchers – Edvard Moser, May-Britt Moser, and John O’Keefe – shared the 2014 Nobel Prize in Physiology of Medicine for their work on identifying the specific types of nerve cells in the brain that establish an internal GPS system.
These cells not only establish a map of space, allowing us to orientate ourselves in our environment, but also form a series of coordinates that allow us to navigate from one location to another. Together, these cells are responsible for our ability to recognize where we are, and to get to where we want to go. The areas of the brain that these cells are active in are often associated with other cognitive functions, and are frequently the target of Alzheimers disease. It is hoped that by understanding how the brain functions at the cellular level that it may be possible to shed some light on how dementia, and other disorders, develop as we age.
According to the Nobel Committee – ” The discovery of the brain’s positioning system represents a paradigm shift in our understanding of how ensembles of specialized cells work together to execute higher cognitive functions. It has opened new avenues for understanding other cognitive processes, such as memory, thinking and planning”
A list of some of the key papers for these researchers is provided below.
- The 2014 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine – Press Release“. Nobelprize.org. Nobel Media AB 2014. Web. 7 Oct 2014.
- O’Keefe J. (1971). The hippocampus as a spatial map. Preliminary evidence from unit activity in the freely-moving rat, Brain Research, 34 (1) 171-175. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/0006-8993(71)90358-1
- O’Keefe J. (1976). Place units in the hippocampus of the freely moving rat, Experimental Neurology, 51 (1) 78-109. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/0014-4886(76)90055-8
- Fyhn M et al.. (2004). Spatial Representation in the Entorhinal Cortex, Science, 305 (5688) 1258-1264. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1126/science.1099901
- Hafting T., Sturla Molden, May-Britt Moser & Edvard I. Moser (2005). Microstructure of a spatial map in the entorhinal cortex, Nature, 436 (7052) 801-806. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/nature03721
- Sargolini F. et al. (2006). Conjunctive Representation of Position, Direction, and Velocity in Entorhinal Cortex, Science, 312 (5774) 758-762. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1126/science.1125572