Dave Knott writes U.S.-British scientist John O'Keefe and Norwegian married couple May-Britt Moser and Edvard Moser won the Nobel Prize in medicine on Monday for discovering the "inner GPS" that helps the brain navigate through the world. O'Keefe, currently director of the Sainsbury Wellcome Centre in Neural Circuits and Behaviour at University College London, discovered the first component of this system in 1971 when he found that a certain type of nerve cell was always activated when a rat was at a certain place in a room. He demonstrated that these "place cells" were building up a map of the environment, not just registering visual input. Thirty-four years later, the Mosers, of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim, identified another type of nerve cell — the "grid cell" — that generates a coordinate system for precise positioning and path-finding, These findings on rats — and research suggests humans have the same system in their brains — represent a paradigm shift in our knowledge of how cells work together to perform cognitive functions and could help scientists understand the mechanisms behind Alzheimer's disease.
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