Nobel Prize in Medicine and what "GPS of the brain" means for Alzheimer's Patients

(L to R) John O'Keefe, Edvard Moser, and May-Britt Moser 
Christian Charisius,Torstein Boe/European Pressphoto Agency

This morning, I woke up to an early e-mail (5:54 AM East Coast time, so 2:54AM Californian time)--a "Breaking News" from the NY Times Science that the Nobel Prize in Medicine was awarded to 3 neuroscientists who are credited with discovering the "GPS" of the brain in animals. This was very exciting to me because I used to assist with research in a Neuroscience, Pediatrics, & Anatomy lab and study electroencephalograms of rodents and epilepsy.

Even more exciting is that 2 of the 3 neuroscientists are a married couple from Norway! My Physicist's heritage is of Norwegian/Polish ancestry, and because he often gets bummed when people mistake Norwegians for Swedes, I was really excited to read that the Karolinka Institute in Sweden chose Drs. May-Britt & Edvard I. Moser from Norway as 2 of its 3 laureates for their discovery. Yay for Norway + Science for My Physicist! Haha :)

The Mosers are only the 2nd couple ever to win a Nobel Prize in Medicine, and May-Britt is one of less than 12 women who have been honored in this way in medicine.

The other Nobel laureate is Dr. John O'Keefe, a British-American neuroscientist who discovered the 1st component of the "GPS" system in rats in 1971. He called his discovery of the nerve cells in the hippocampus that activated when a rat was in a specific location "place cells." The Mosers discovered the 2nd component in 2005--a different type of nerve cell that allows coordination and positioning, which they call "grid cells" because a hexagonal grid would form every time a rat passed multiple locations. Both of these components work together to allow an animal to determine its place spatially and orient itself for navigation--hence, the GPS function of the brain.

Also touching is when you hear stories of how scientists work together to achieve great things. The Mosers actually studied under Dr. O'Keefe at one point when they were visiting scientists at University College London. This kind of lifelong academic networking and friendship brings a smile to my face--and look at what they were able to achieve together, many years later!

Dr. May-Britt Moser explained part of the significance of their discovery:
"There are some groups of Alzheimer's patients that have a tiny lesion in their adrenal cortex exactly where we found the grid cells--"

Image from NatureYou can see where the random movements are (gray lines), when the cells fire (red), and where there is a high rate of firing (yellow)--forming a grid pattern.
The first symptom Alzheimer's patients typically have is that they can't find their way, so you can see how being able to study and map the GPS of the brain can propel therapies for Alzheimer's research forward.

This is also why Dr. John O'Keefe, Dr. May-Britt Moser, and Dr. Edvard I. Moser are this week's Stars.

Go Science! ;)

You can watch the interview with the Mosers explaining their research and significance here.
You can read the NY Times article here.

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