Discovering The Brain’s GPS Earns Three A Nobel



by Michael Keller

Three neuroscientists who uncovered how the brain understands where the body is in space have won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, judges announced today. 

“How do we know where we are? How can we find the way from one place to another?” wrote the Nobel Assembly in making the announcement. “This year´s Nobel Laureates have discovered a positioning system, an ‘inner GPS’ in the brain that makes it possible to orient ourselves.”

Half of the prize went to John O’Keefe, an American and British citizen who is now the head of University College London’s Sainsbury Wellcome Center in Neural Circuits and Behavior. In 1971, O’Keefe found that certain neurons in a rat’s brain activated when the animal was in one location. When it moved somewhere else, other cells lit up. O’Keefe proposed that this activity engendered a sense of place and develop into a map of the external world. Furthermore, the collection of different “place cell” activations for a particular environment could be saved to remember a particular place later.

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