STOCKHOLM, SWEDEN — American neuroscientist John O'Keefe and Norwegian neuroscientists May-Britt Moser and Edvard I. Moser have been jointly awarded the 2014 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their discoveries of cells that constitute a positioning system in the brain, the committee announced on Monday.
The annual prize was awarded in Stockholm with one half to O'Keefe and the other half jointly to the Mosers, recognizing both sides for their work decades apart in discovering a positioning system, an "inner GPS" in the brain that makes it possible for people to orient themselves in spaces, and demonstrating a cellular basis for higher cognitive functions.
O'Keefe discovered the first component of this positioning system in the late 1960s when he found that a type of nerve cell in an area of the brain called the hippocampus was always activated when a rat was at a certain place in a room. Other nerve cells were activated when the rat was at other places, leading him to conclude in 1971 that the function of these "place cells" is to build up an inner map of the environment.
More than three decades later, in 2005, couple May-Britt and Edvard I. Moser discovered another key component of the brain's positioning system. They identified a different type of nerve cell, which they called "grid cells," which generate a coordinates system and allow for precise positioning and pathfinding. Their subsequent research showed how place and grid cells make it possible for people to determine their position and to navigate.
The Nobel Assembly at Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm said the discoveries by the three neuroscientists solved a problem that had occupied philosophers and scientists for centuries. "The sense of place and the ability to navigate are fundamental to our existence," the assembly said in a statement.
The Mosers are the fifth married couple to be awarded a Nobel Prize, with May-Britt being the eleventh woman to win the prize in Medicine.
"I was crying. I was in shock, and I'm still in shock. This is so great," May-Britt said in a first reaction to Monday's news, adding that her husband was on board a flight to Munich and presumably had not yet been told. "This is an honor for all the people who have supported excellence science in Norway."
Asked about the success of their long partnership, May-Britt said she and her husband both share the same vision and "love to understand." "We do that by talking to each other, talking to other people, and then try to address the questions that we're interested in in the best way that we can think of."
May-Britt said their partnership also benefited from being able to discuss ideas "on the spot," rather than planning meetings weeks in advance. "It's easier for us, because we can have breakfast meetings almost every day," she said. "And of course, when you want to select your colleagues, you want to have colleagues who respect you and who you can trust and who would support you, and I think that is the clue."
O'Keefe, who is the Director of the Sainsbury Wellcome Center in Neural Circuits and Behavior at University College London, was not immediately available for comment.
A total of 263 scientists were nominated for the 2014 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, including 46 people who were nominated for the first time. Monday's event kicked off an annual series of announcements for prizes in various categories, including the prestigious Peace Prize on Friday.
All recipients will be presented their awards at a ceremony on December 10, which marks the death anniversary of Alfred Nobel, whose fortune was used posthumously to institute the Nobel Prizes.