The Nobel Committee comments on the 2014 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine
One half of this year’s Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine went to British scientist John O’Keefe, the other half jointly to the Norwegian husband-and-wife team of May-Britt and Edvard Moser, for their discoveries of a positioning system in the brain.
The positioning system, which is like the brain’s own GPS, mainly comprises two cell types: place cells and grid cells. The former create an inner map of location in space, while the latter form a coordination system that determines such factors as distance and that is used for navigation.
“I think that most people will appreciate the fact that we have decided to reward both rather complex cerebral functions and a combination of classic and relatively new data,” says Nobel Committee member Urban Lendahl, professor of genetics at KI’s Department of Cell and Molecular Biology.
John O’Keefe, professor of cognitive neuroscience at University College London, published his discovery of place cells in the hippocampus back in 1971. May-Britt and Edvard Moser, both professors of neuroscience at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim published their findings on the grid cells in a different but neighbouring area of the brain, the entorhinal cortex, in 2005.
All three scientists made their discoveries in rats, but similar cell types have been found in other mammals, including bats – and humans.
“In 2003, other neuroscientists were able to show from their work with epilepsy patients that people have a type of cell similar to the place cells, and last year it was found that people also have cells resembling the grid cells,” says Nobel Committee chairperson Juleen Zierath, professor of clinical integrative physiology at the Department of Molecular Medicine and Surgery.
The next stage, according to professors Lendahl and Zierath, is to study the part played by the cells in the human memory.
“It’s a field of study that I know all three laureates are extremely interested in,” says Professor Lendahl.
Professor Zierath adds that knowledge of these cell types might come in useful in the future treatment of patients with impaired orientation and memory faculties, such as those with Alzheimer’s disease.
“But this isn’t a medicine prize that explains pathological mechanisms but a physiology prize that helps us understand neurophysiology,” she says.
KI has no research group looking into these cell types, say professors Lendahl and Zierath, but neurobiology is a huge research field at the university, and some scientists at KI are working on studies closely related to the prize-winning discoveries.
One of them is Hans Forssberg, professor of basal and clinical neuroscience at the Department of Women’s and Children’s Health, he too a member of the Nobel Committee.
“I’m studying motor problems in children with conditions like cerebral palsy, and, after all, we need motor function to make practical use of our positional system,” he says.
As a neuroscientist, Professor Forssberg has met all three Nobel laureates at conferences and lectures over the years hosted by KI and universities around the world.
Text: Lisa Reimegård
Translation: Neil Betteridge