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Monday, October 06, 2014

The 2014 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine

Who are these people? I pride myself on being a generalist so I think I've heard of any important discoveries in biology. I may not always agree that they are ground-breaking discoveries but at least I know about them.

I think this is the very first time that I learned of an important discovery only when the Nobel Prizes are announced.

I must be getting too old for this game. From The 2014 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine ...
The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2014 was awarded with one half to John O'Keefe and the other half jointly to May-Britt Moser and Edvard I. Moser "for their discoveries of cells that constitute a positioning system in the brain".

How do we know where we are? How can we find the way from one place to another? And how can we store this information in such a way that we can immediately find the way the next time we trace the same path? 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, demonstrating a cellular basis for higher cognitive function.

In 1971, John O´Keefe discovered the first component of this positioning system. He found that a type of nerve cell in an area of the brain called the hippocampus that 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. O´Keefe concluded that these “place cells” formed a map of the room.

More than three decades later, in 2005, May-Britt and Edvard Moser discovered another key component of the brain’s positioning system. They identified another type of nerve cell, which they called “grid cells”, that generate a coordinate system and allow for precise positioning and pathfinding. Their subsequent research showed how place and grid cells make it possible to determine position and to navigate.

The discoveries of John O´Keefe, May-Britt Moser and Edvard Moser have solved a problem that has occupied philosophers and scientists for centuries – how does the brain create a map of the space surrounding us and how can we navigate our way through a complex environment?
Is this going to be controversial?


  1. I can hardly wait to see how the fools at UD try to ridicule this work.

    1. Dense n'Sneery will denounce the research as materialist reductionism: they assumed brain functions are produced by the brain. Of course, the UDites will snarl, brain functions are carried out by an invisible spook in an alternate dimension, which then merely causes our peripheral nervous system to fire in this world, like a pilot pulling the levers in a 747's cockpit, except the pilot is Casper the Friendly Ghost, the cockpit is Heaven or the realm of Platonic ideals, and the 747 is a part of your nervous system that the great "scientists" of ID never quite pin down, because that would make their bullshit testable.

  2. This was somewhat surprising award because it seemed that much of the pre-Nobel speculation was focusing on Robert Tjian for his eukaryotic transcription work. I haven't heard of O'Keefe and the Mosers either, but my neuroscience friends insist that they are well known to them at least.

  3. ..."for their discoveries of cells that constitute a positioning system in the brain"...

    There must be a typo here....I think it should have been:

    ..."for their DEVELOPING of cells that constitute a positioning system in the brain"...

    Otherwise... why would it be such a big deal...??? Brainless accidents made those cells to work so beautifully why should intelligent men receive the praises for discovering something they had nothing to do with inventing it...? Shouldn't the Nobel Prize go to damn luck or something...?

  4. I read reviews of their work some time ago. I don't think it's a controversial pick. It's cool stuff.

    I hasn't heard about speculations around Tijan. I don't think that would be too controversial either. It would be for work from the preceding decades but that's not unusual for the award. Heck, you could probably add his graduate advisor, Rich Losick, as a candidate as well, but bacterial systems haven't been sexy for years.

  5. Great work May and Edvard!

    You both deserve the prize. And thanks again Edvard for helping me find the exact right words to explain the scientific value of the Grid Cell Attractor Network:

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