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Nobel Prize Awarded to 3 Scientists for Discovering the Brain’s “GPS”

Update Date: Oct 06, 2014 09:33 AM EDT
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Three scientists have been awarded the 2014 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for discovering the brain's "inner GPS" that explains how living things navigate. The winners consisted of a British-American researcher, John O'Keefe and married research couple, May-Britt Moser and Edvard I. Moser from Norway.

According to a press release, the Karolinska Institute located in Sweden, which was responsible for choosing the winners, stated that the discoveries "have solved a problem that has occupied philosophers and scientists for centuries."

The discoveries uncovered how the brain works to identify location, how it navigates the body from one place to the next and how it stores relevant information to be used next time. The laureates will divide the prize money worth of $1.1 million in half.

"The discovery...revolutionized our understanding of how the brain knows where we are and is able to navigate within our surroundings," said Andrew King, a professor of neurophysiology at Britain's University of Oxford, reported by Reuters.

O'Keefe's discovery was made in 1971 when he identified the first component of an inner GPS system in rat models. He noted that every time the rats were at certain locations within a laboratory, a group of nerve cells, dubbed the "place cells" would activate in the hippocampus region. O'Keefe concluded that the place cells were responsible for mapping out locations.

Over three decades later, the duo identified another kind of nerve cell that was linked to coordination and positioning, which they named the "grid cells." The Moser team discovered that these grid cells explain how animals know where they are, where they have been and where they plan on going.

"This is such a great honor for all of us and all the people who have worked with us and supported us," May-Britt Moser stated according to the Seattle Times. "We are going to continue and hopefully do even more groundbreaking work in the future."

Juleen Zierath, chair of the medicine prize committee, commented, "Thanks to our grid and place cells, we don't have to walk around with a map to find our way each time we visit a city because we have that map in our head. I think, without these cells, we would have a really hard time to survive."

O'Keefe and the Moser team will receive their reward on Dec. 10, the anniversary of the death of Alfred Nobel who created the prize.

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