Brain Discovery Earns Researchers Nobel Prize

Compass and Map

This year’s Nobel Prize recipients helped improve understanding of brain navigation.

The Nobel Prize in Medicine was announced Monday with three deserving researchers sharing the award. All three made major breakthroughs in neuroscience which aid in understanding the brain and could lead to future treatments for dementia.

Although there were some impressive contenders for this year’s Nobel Prize, it was ultimately awarded to three brain researchers. One of the recipients is a scientist with U.S. and British dual citizenship, John O’Keefe, who is the director of the Sainsbury Wellcome Center in Neural Circuits and Behavior at University College London. The other two recipients are a husband and wife team, May-Britt Moser and Edward I. Moser, both of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology and both Norwegian citizens. O’Keefe’s earlier discovery lead to a breakthrough for the Moser team, resulting in a better understanding of how the brain works, especially when it comes to navigation.

Scientists have always shown interest in studying the human brain, but the past few decades have led to more advanced understanding. Back in 1971, O’Keefe theorized that “place cells” would help the brain form a map of a room, helping it to remember locations and navigate the space. When he placed rats in certain parts of a room, different cells in their hippocampus would become activated. The brain’s hippocampus is believed to be important for space and memory-related functions.

As research into the brain continued over the years, the Mosers built on O’Keefe’s earlier work. In 2005, they discovered what scientists call “grid cells”. When the Mosers studied rats moving around a room, they discovered that the entorhinal cortex activated. This part of the brain activated in a unique pattern that matched the location of the animal’s head relative to the borders of the room. They believe this map of cells in the brain coordinates to the real world, helping the rats to navigate through their surroundings.

While both researchers used rats in their experiments, the same sort of thing may be happening in normal human brains. Human brains likely use cells to form a map of the surroundings as well, helping in navigation.

Although this brain research is in its early stages, this discovery could have far-reaching implications for medicine. With the aging population, cases of Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia are expected to increase many-fold. This increasingly large problem means researchers need to find better treatments or maybe even a cure to lessen the impact of dementia on society, and on individuals’ lives.

Since one of the major symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease is the tendency to get lost, this research could have important implications for the disease. If scientists are able to locate the problem areas in the brain that are causing Alzheimer’s patients to lose their navigation ability, they could potentially stimulate those areas and get them to function normally.

Although there are currently medications to treat Alzehimer’s and other forms of dementia, these treatments help lessen the symptoms but do not have a major impact on the disease. There have also not been any new treatments in recent years.

As the three scientists share the Nobel Prize for Medicine this year, they and other researchers continue to build on their findings. Neuroscientists continue to improve their understanding of the brain, and hope for better dementia treatments.

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