Champagne corks were popping in Trondheim on Monday after a Norwegian couple doing research at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) jointly won the Nobel Prize in Medicine along with a fellow researcher, John O’Keefe. “It’s bubbling over here, yes!” May-Britt Moser told newspaper VG shortly after the prize was awarded.
Moser, her husband Edvard Moser and O’Keefe won their prize “for their discoveries of cells that constitute a positioning system in the brain,” according to the Nobel Assembly at Karolinska Institute that decides the annual winner of one of the world’s most prestigious prizes.
The discovery, compared to “an inner GPS in the brain,” makes it possible “to orient ourselves in space, demonstrating a cellular basis for higher cognitive function.” It also is important for research into Alzheimer’s disease, whose victims lose their sense of orientation.
“If these cells disappear, we can’t manage to find our way,” Moser told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK). “That’s what happens to Alzheimer’s patients. The first symptom they have is that they can’t manage to find their way.”
O’Keefe was lauded for discovering the first component of this “positioning system” in 1971. “More than three decades later, in 2005, the Mosers discovered another key component of the brain’s positioning system,” the Nobel Assembly wrote in their announcement on Monday. “They discovered another type of 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 assembly, consisting of 50 professors at Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, went on to claim that the discoveries of O’Keefe and the Mosers “have solved a problem that 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?”
May-Britt Moser called the prize “so fantastic. Those who believe in excellence in science get their rewards, this is huge! Hail Norway!”
The prize is also a major accomplishment for NTNU, one of Norway’s top universities that attracts students and researchers from around the world. Hege Tunstad of the Kavli Institute for Systems Neuroscience at NTNU told NRK that “we’re having a party here at the center at 1pm, and the champagne will pour. People here are ecstatic.”
May-Britt Moser’s husband, however, wasn’t immediately aware they’d won the Nobel Prize, because “Edvard Moser is sitting on a flight to Munich,” Tunstad said.
Prime Minister Erna Solberg also called the Nobel Prize “fantastic” and “an inspiration for Norwegian researchers and not least patients.”