Most of the time, none of us understands the topics for which scientists receive the Nobel Prize other than it’s a big deal. This time, the 2014 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine is going to three people, John O’Keefe and May-Britt Moser and Edvard I. Moser for their discoveries of cells that constitute a positioning system in the brain. This is really fascinating.

How do we know where we are? How can we find the way from one place to another? How do we store this information so we can immediately find the way the next time we want to go to the same place? It seems that our brains have an “inner GPS” system and this system demonstrates a cellular basis for higher cognitive functioning.

The finding of grid cells generate a coordinate system and allows for precise positioning and path finding which makes it possible to determine position and navigation. The brain creates a map of the space surrounding us and allows us to navigate our way through a complex environment. All of this information is stored in the hippocampus and another place called the entorhinal cortex, two of the memory areas of the brain.

In Alzheimer’s disease, the hippocampus and entorhinal cortex are frequently affected at an early stage and these individual often lose their way and cannot recognize the environment. Knowledge about the brain’s positioning system may, therefore, help us understand the mechanism underpinning the devastating spatial memory loss that affects people with this disease.  

The longer term positive aspects of this discovery is that it represents a shift in our understanding of how ensembles of specialized cells work together to execute higher cognitive functions. It has opened new avenues for understanding other cognitive processes, such as memory thinking and planning.  

Wow, maybe someday, I can plug into my brain instead of my Waze app to find my way around traffic here in LA.  Just imagine!!!

(Info from the press release of the Nobel Assembly at Karolinska Institutet. Comments from me)