And the Nobel Prize goes to… (UPDATE)

(October 6th, 2014) Hurray for European neuroscience. John O’Keefe (UK) and Edvard and May-Britt Moser (Norway) won this year’s biggest prize – the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Eric Betzig, Stefan Hell and William Moerner won the Chemistry Prize. Lab Times salutes them.

Like many others, also the Lab Times editors had fun, chipping in their own predictions for this year’s Nobel Prizes. Many names were dropped, including this year’s Lasker Award winners Kazutoshi Mori and Peter Walter (for studying the unfolded protein response), Susan Lindquist (for her work on heat-shock proteins) and Ingeborg and Erwin Hochmair (for developing the cochlear implant). All of them surely deserve the high honour but there can be only one - or three. This year’s Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to John O’Keefe (University College London) and the researcher couple, Edvard and May-Britt Moser (Norwegian University of Science and Technology) “for their discoveries of cells that constitute a positioning system in the brain”. We might add here that one of our editors guessed correctly.

Who are this year’s Nobelists? John O’Keefe, born 1939 in New York City, studied psychology at the City College of New York. For his doctoral degree in physiological psychology he went to Canada, to the McGill University in Montreal. Since 1967, he has been with the University College London. It is here, in the late 1960s and 1970s, that he discovered special cells in the rat’s brain. Depending on the animal’s spatial location, different groups of neurons - pyramidal neurons, to be exact - in the hippocampus fire, creating a spatial map of the world around the rodent. O’Keefe called these cells “place cells” and secured his place in the history of neuroscience.

Just a few years later, a man meets a woman at the University of Oslo. Both study psychology and soon discover their mutual love for neurobiology - and each other. That’s the story of Edvard (born 1962 in Ålesund) and May-Britt Moser (born 1963 in Fosnavåg), who were jointly awarded the second half of this year’s big prize. Hearing about “place cells” from the man himself and learning how to do tetrode recording in the hippocampus during a short postdoc stay in the lab of John O’Keefe in 1996, the Mosers returned to Norway to find out more about navigational maps in the rat brain. For their studies, they, however, focused on the entorhinal cortex, which is hard-wired to the hippocampus and plays important roles in memory and navigation. Mapping hippocampal connections, the two soon encountered another strange firing phenomenon. “Our recordings showed that entorhinal cells also had spatial signals, as predicted, but each cell had multiple firing locations and those locations were distributed very regularly. When we finally recorded rat entorhinal cortex activity as they ran around in sufficiently large enough space, we could see that the firing fields were periodically arranged in a hexagonal grid pattern,” Edvard Moser explained in an interview with The Proteintech Blog. Intrigued by the strict pattern, the Mosers called their newly discovered cells “grid cells”.

Together these two cells, grid and place cells, help rodents and most likely also us navigate through space. And there’s also a medical aspect of this year’s Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine. The entorhinal cortex is one of the first brain areas to be affected in Alzheimer’s disease. AD patients often lose their inner compass and get lost. Knowing more about the positioning system inside rats, mice and humans could help us understand what goes wrong as the disease manifests itself and what can, perhaps, be done to correct it.


October 8th, 2014

And the Nobel Prize in Physics Chemistry goes to Eric Betzig (Janelia Farm Research Campus, Ashburn, USA), Stefan Hell (Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry, Göttingen, Germany) and William Moerner (Stanford University). Lab Times, again, had the right instinct for the winners and their inventions. Super-resolution microscopy, resolving objects separated by less than 200 nanometres, has been picked out as a method worthy to talk and write about as early as 2009 and as recently as May of this year. Hence, the names Hell (Stimulated Emission Depletion microscopy, published in 1994) and Betzig (Photo-activated Localisation Microscopy, published in 2006) also appeared on our Nobel Prize predictions list. Only Moerner, who was the first to optically detect a single molecule (a pentacene) in condensed phases in the late 1980s, slipped under our radar. Congratulations to Eric Betzig, Stefan Hell and William Moerner.

Kathleen Gransalke

Photos: David Bishop, UCL (O'Keefe), NTNU Info (E. & M. Moser), Janelia Farm (Betzig), Bernd Schuller, MPI Biophysical Chemistry (Hell) and Stanford University (Moerner)

Last Changes: 11.14.2014

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