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2014: Professor John O’Keefe

The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2014 was awarded to John O'Keefe, along with Britt Moser and Edvard I Moser for their discovery of cells which make up a positioning system or ‘inner GPS’ in the brain.

In 1971, John O´Keefe discovered the first component of this positioning system. He found ‘place cells’, a type of nerve cell, in a brain region called the hippocampus. These cells always activated when a rat was at a certain place in a room while other nerve cells were activated when the rat changed location. John concluded that these place cells formed an organised map of the rat’s activities within the room.

His work, funded by the MRC, resulted in a paper published in 1971, while working under Professor Patrick Wall, Director of the MRC Cerebral Functions Research Group at UCL. John was a member of Patrick Wall's group for seven years from 1967, and held MRC research grants from 1979 until 2000.

John speculated that place cells would need information similar to latitude and longitude in order to map space. However the location of this information remained a mystery for more than three decades. That was until 2005, when two of John’s former postdocs at UCL, May-Britt and Edvard Moser, discovered another key element of the positioning system. They identified a type of nerve cell, so-called ‘grid cells’, that are organised into a specific mathematical arrangement and generate a coordinate system, allowing for precise positioning and pathfinding. By translating the electrical activity of nerve cells into a representation of space they went on to show how place cells and grid cells make it possible to determine position and enable navigation.

Together, the discoveries of John, May-Britt and Edvard succeeded in linking cellular information to cognitive processing. The behaviour of place cells and grid cells help explain how individual brain cells create a map of the space surrounding us and enable us to navigate our way through a complex environment.