John O’Keefe, a professor of cognitive neuroscience at University College London who holds U.S. and U.K. citizenship, and Norwegians May-Britt Moser, 51, and Edvard I. Moser, 52, will share the 8 million-krona ($1.1 million) prize, the Nobel Assembly said today in Stockholm. O’Keefe, 74, will receive half the amount, and the Mosers, the fifth married couple to win a Nobel Prize, will share the rest.
The scientists’ work in finding cells that create a map of the surrounding space and aid navigation may improve understanding of how these abilities deteriorate in people with Alzheimer’s disease. Their research has also illuminated other processes in the brain such as memory, thinking and planning, the Nobel Assembly said in a statement.
“The ability to know where we are and find our way are essential to our existence,” Ole Kiehn, a professor of neuroscience at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, said at a press conference in the Swedish capital. “O’Keefe’s discovery of place cells showed that specialized nerve cells can compute abstract higher brain functions. His finding had a dramatic impact on the study of how the brain creates behavior.”
O’Keefe found in 1971 that a type of nerve cell in the hippocampus area of the brain was always activated when a rat was at a certain place in a room, the Nobel Assembly said. Other cells were active when the rat was in a different place, he found. He dubbed the cells “place cells,” the assembly said.
The finding was controversial as the prevailing wisdom at the time was to approach spatial perception from receptors like the eyes and progress through to the cells that receive information from them, O’Keefe told reporters in London today.
Colleagues “thought it was an act of sheer hubris to think that you could go to this part of the brain, which was as far away as you could get from the periphery and sensory inputs,” he said. “They were surprised and there was a lot of resistance.”
More than three decades later, after working with O’Keefe in London as visiting scientists, the Mosers discovered another component of the positioning system, nerve cells that generate a coordinate system and make precise positioning possible, according to the statement.
Edvard Moser is a professor at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology and director of the Kavli Institute for Systems Neuroscience in Trondheim, Norway. May-Britt Moser is also a professor at the university and director of the Centre for Neural Computation.
“It is such a shock,” May-Britt Moser, the 11th woman to win the medicine prize, said by telephone from Trondheim. When she received the call about the prize, her husband was on a flight to Munich and she couldn’t share the news with him, she said. They’ve been collaborating on research since 1983 and established their laboratory in Trondheim in 1996, she said. “This is a prize for the whole community.”
O’Keefe was working at home revising a grant proposal when he received the news, he said. His “checkered youth” included studying classics in high school and engineering and philosophy as a college student in New York, he said. There, he was seduced by philosophical questions around consciousness and how to solve the mind-body problem, leading him to seek out answers through the field of neuroscience, he said.
O’Keefe advised the Mosers on how to go about their research in 1995 before they established their lab, May-Britt Moser said in an interview with NobelPrize.org. Asked about the advantages of being a husband-and-wife team, May-Britt said, “we can have breakfast meetings almost every day.” The last married couple to win the same Nobel award were Carl and Gerty Cori, who shared the 1947 medicine prize with Bernardo Houssay.
The scientists’ work is relevant for research in Alzheimer’s as the progress of the disease can be followed and observed in place cells, O’Keefe said. That, in turn, informs how interventions can attack the ailment, he said.
As much of their work has been in rats, O’Keefe expressed concern that regulations on animal research may become too restrictive. The U.S.-born scientist also said immigration rules are posing “large obstacles” to attracting talented scientists to the U.K.
Last year’s Nobel prize for medicine was awarded to three U.S. scientists -- James Rothman, Randy Schekman and Thomas C. Suedhof -- for detailing how a cell’s transporters navigate and drop off hormones and other molecules, opening avenues of research into treatments for diabetes as well as neurological and immune disorders.
Annual prizes for achievements in physics, chemistry, medicine, peace and literature were established in the will of Alfred Nobel, the Swedish inventor of dynamite, who died in 1896. The Nobel Foundation was established in 1900 and the prizes were first handed out the following year.
An economics prize was created almost seven decades later in memory of Nobel by the Swedish central bank. Only the peace prize is awarded outside Sweden, by the five-member Norwegian Nobel Committee in Oslo.
The Nobel Prize in Physics will be announced tomorrow.