STOCKHOLM — A U.S.-British scientist and a Norwegian husband-and-wife research team won the Nobel Prize in medicine Monday for discovering the brain's navigation system — the inner GPS that helps us find our way in the world — a revelation that one day could help those with Alzheimer's.
The research by John O'Keefe, May-Britt Moser and Edvard Moser represents a "paradigm shift" in neuroscience that could help researchers understand the sometimes severe spatial memory loss associated with Alzheimer's disease, the Nobel Assembly said.
"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," the assembly said.
O'Keefe, 75, a dual U.S. and British citizen at the University College London, discovered the first component of this system in 1971 when he found that a certain type of nerve cell was always activated when a rat was at a certain place in a room. He demonstrated that these "place cells" were building up a map of the environment, not just registering visual input.
Thirty-four years later, in 2005, May-Britt Moser and Edvard Moser, married neuroscientists at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim, identified another type of nerve cell — the "grid cell" — that generates a coordinate system for precise positioning and path-finding, the assembly said.
It was the fourth time that a married couple has shared a Nobel Prize and the second time in the medicine category.
"This is crazy," an excited May-Britt Moser, 51, told The Associated Press by telephone from Trondheim.
She said her 52-year-old husband didn't immediately find out about the prize because he was flying Monday morning to the Max Planck Institute in Munich, Germany, to demonstrate their research.
"This is such a great honor for all of us and all the people who have worked with us and supported us," she said, adding they had been together for 30 years. "We are going to continue and hopefully do even more groundbreaking work in the future."
Hege Tunstad, a spokeswoman at the university in Trondheim, said May-Britt Moser "needed a minute to cry and speak with her team" when she first heard the news.
Edvard Moser told the Norwegian news agency NTB he only discovered he had won after he landed in Munich, turned on his cellphone and saw a flood of emails, text messages and missed calls.
"I didn't know anything. When I got off the plane there was a representative there with a bouquet of flowers who said 'congratulations on the prize,'" he was quoted as saying.
O'Keefe, a New York-born scientist who moved to England for postdoctoral training, found the "place cells" in a part of the brain called the hippocampus. The Mosers, meanwhile, identified the "grid cells" in a nearby section of the brain known as the entorhinal cortex.
The Nobel Assembly said the discoveries marked a shift in scientists' understanding of how specialized cells work together to perform complex cognitive tasks. They have also opened new avenues for understanding cognitive functions such as memory, thinking and planning.
"Thanks to our grid and place cells, we don't have to walk around with a map to find our way each time we visit a city, because we have that map in our head," said Juleen Zierath, chair of the medicine prize committee. "I think, without these cells, we would have a really hard time to survive."
All three Nobel laureates won Columbia University's Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize last year for their discoveries. They will split the Nobel prize money of 8 million Swedish kronor (about $1.1 million).
The Nobel awards in physics, chemistry, literature and peace will be announced later this week and the economics prize will be announced next Monday. Created by Swedish industrialist Alfred Nobel, the Nobel Prizes were first awarded in 1901. The winners collect their awards on Dec. 10, the anniversary of Nobel's death in 1896.
Last year's medicine award went to researchers who discovered how substances are transported within cells, a process involved in such important activities as brain cell communication and the release of insulin.
Mark Lewis in Stavanger, Norway, contributed to this report.