Scientist wins Nobel Prize – 40 years later

Prof John O'Keefe shared prize with Edvard Moser. Picture: PA
Prof John O'Keefe shared prize with Edvard Moser. Picture: PA
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An AMERICAN-BRITISH scientist who helped to uncover the brain’s “inner GPS system” has been jointly awarded the 2014 Nobel Prize in Medicine more than 40 years after his research.

John O’Keefe, a professor of cognitive neuroscience at University College London, made the first key discovery in understanding the brain’s navigation system in 1971 when he identified “place cells” which map the environment around us.

It was 34 years later in 2005 that Norwegian scientists and married couple May-Britt Moser and Edvard Moser – who share the award – found a second type of nerve cell, the “grid cell” which generates a coordinate system for path-finding.

The University of Edinburgh said the Mosers are the latest of many Nobel Laureates to have links with the institution. From 1995 to 1997, both Professor May-Britt Moser and Professor Edvard Moser worked as post-doctoral researchers with Richard Morris, Professor of Neuroscience at the Centre for Cognitive and Neural Systems.

Edvard Moser remains an Honorary Professor at the university’s College of Medicine and Veterinary Medicine.

Prof Morris said: “I am absolutely delighted for this prestigious award to go to dear friends and fabulous scientists.

“I am particularly pleased for May-Britt and Edvard – both former post-doctoral students and current affiliates at the University of Edinburgh’s Centre for Cognitive and Neural Systems. It is wonderful news.”

Paul Nurse, president of the Royal Society, said the trio, including Royal Society Fellow Prof O’Keefe, were “deserving winners”. Praising their “outstanding contribution to neuroscience”, he said: “This is great recognition for their important work and the society congratulates all three on their success.”

The Nobel Prize assembly said together the scientists 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 findings could help researchers understand the spatial memory loss associated with Alzheimer’s disease.

The Nobel Assembly added: “The discovery of the brain’s positioning system represents a paradigm shift in our understanding of how ensembles of specialised cells work together to execute higher cognitive functions.

“It has opened new avenues for understanding other cognitive processes, such as memory, thinking and planning.”