(CNN) — The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine has gone to John O’Keefe and May-Britt and Edvard Moser for work on cells that form a positioning system in the brain — its hard-wired GPS.
Their research helps better show how people orient themselves, and it could prove useful in Alzheimer’s research, because of the parts of the brain those cells lie in.
Primarily, the scientists have helped answer the fundamental questions of how we know where we are, where we’re going and how we remember it all, so that we can repeat our trips, the Nobel Committee said in a statement.
The researchers’ answers have to do with the way special brain cells in the hippocampus and the entorhinal cortex work together.
Humans and other mammals have two hippocampi, which lie in the inner core of the brain and are responsible for memory and orientation. The entorhinal cortices share these functions and connect the hippocampi with the huge neocortex, the bulk of our gray matter.
The scientists conducted their research on rats.
Nerve cell discoveries
O’Keefe, a British neuroscientist who is also a U.S. citizen, made the first discovery in 1971, when he came upon a nerve cell in the brain of a rat that was set off whenever the rat was in a particular place, the statement said.
The scientist called them “place cells.”
In 2005, the Mosers, Norwegian neuroscientists, discovered yet another component.
“They identified another type of nerve cell, which they called ‘grid cells,’ that generate a coordinate system and allow for precise positioning and pathfinding,” the statement read.
They also later figured out how place and grid cells work together to make the brain know where it is and where it’s headed.
Monday’s ceremony at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden, will be followed by the announcement of the physics prize Tuesday, the chemistry prize Wednesday and the economics prize on October 13. The prize for literature will be awarded on a date to be announced later.
The Nobel Peace Prize will be awarded Friday.
Each prize comes with 8 million Swedish kronor ($1.2 million).
Two Americans and a German shared the Nobel Prize in medicine last year.
James E. Rothman and Randy W. Schekman, and German Thomas C. Sudhof were awarded the prize for discoveries of how the body’s cells decide when and where to deliver the molecules they produce.
Swedish industrialist Alfred Nobel created the prizes in 1895 to honor work in physics, chemistry, literature and peace. The first economics prize was awarded in 1969.