|Professor John O'Keefe speaks at a news conference in London. Reuters|
AN Irish-American scientist and a Norwegian husband-and-wife research team yesterday won the Nobel Prize in medicine for discovering the brain's navigation system - the inner GPS that helps us find our way in the world - a revelation that one day could help those with Alzheimer's.
The research by John O'Keefe, May-Britt Moser and Edvard Moser represents a "paradigm shift" in neuroscience that could help researchers understand the sometimes severe spatial memory loss associated with Alzheimer's disease, the Nobel Assembly said.
"This year's Nobel Laureates have discovered a positioning system, an 'inner GPS' in the brain, that makes it possible to orient ourselves in space," the assembly said.
O'Keefe (75), a professor at the 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, in 2005, May-Britt Moser and Edvard Moser, married neuroscientists at 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, the assembly said.
It was the fourth time that a married couple has shared a Nobel Prize and the second time in the medicine category.
Meanwhile, it was also announced yesterday that Professor O'Keefe is to receive an honorary doctorate from UCC. Professor O'Keefe, whose father hailed from Newmarket, Co Cork, and who still has family in the area, will also be guest speaker at a major symposium organised by UCC's Department of Anatomy and Neuroscience in advance of the ceremony.