The human brain's mechanism for knowing where a person is located - referred to by some people as the GPS of the mind - was revealed by three researchers, who have won the Noble Prize for their work.
John O'Keefe, director of the Sainsbury Wellcome Centre for Neural Circuits and Behaviour at University College in London was awarded half the prize. The other half was given to a husband-and-wife team, who each work in Trondheim, Norway. Edvard Moser is director of the Kavli Institute for Systems Neuroscience, and May-Britt Moser, director of the Centre for Neural Computation.
A nerve cell in brains that become active when the animal is in a certain location was the first component of the brain's natural positioning system, discovered in rats by O'Keefe, during the 1970's. The researcher discovered that other brain cells, also located in the hippocampus, became active when the rat moved to different places. He theorized that these "place cells" provided the ability for rats to know their location. Soon, thousands of neuroscientists were studying these cells, in an effort to understand the role played by the hippocampus in providing a sense of place in animals. Such a sense is essential in providing humans and other animals with a sense of position in the world.
Moser and May-Britt were examining brain structure when they discovered another type of structure, which they termed grid cells. A paper announcing the results of their study was published in 2005. These nerves create a coordinate system in the brain, providing a method of determining distances between a set of locations. Together, the two studies, nearly three decades apart, explain how the mammalian brain is able to find its way around the environment.
"The discoveries of John O´Keefe, May-Britt Moser and Edvard Moser have solved a problem that has occupied philosophers and scientists for centuries - how does the brain create a map of the space surrounding us and how can we navigate our way through a complex environment?" the Noble Prize Committee wrote in a press release, announcing the award.
Questions surrounding the mystery of how brains process and recognize the concept of location have puzzled philosophers and scientists for centuries. Immanuel Kant, a German philosopher, believed the notion of place was built into the human mind.
Dementia in the brain, including Alzheimer's disease, often affect the hippocampus, along with the entorhinal cortex, which houses grid cells. Such patients often experience mental lapses in positioning, easily becoming lost. These discoveries could help pave the way to a new generation of treatments for the disorders.