Directorate-General for Research & Innovation logo Horizon: the EU Research & Innovation magazine | European Commission logo
Receive our editor’s picks

Inner GPS discovery leads EU researchers to Nobel Prize

Profs. May-Britt and Edvard I. Moser, who have both received grants from the European Research Council (ERC), are the fifth husband and wife team to win a Nobel Prize. Image: Geir Mogen, NTNU
Profs. May-Britt and Edvard I. Moser, who have both received grants from the European Research Council (ERC), are the fifth husband and wife team to win a Nobel Prize. Image: Geir Mogen, NTNU

European researchers win the 2014 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for having identified the brain’s inner GPS system.

Norwegian husband-and-wife team Professor May-Britt Moser and Professor Edvard I. Moser won half of the SEK 8 million prize (EUR 881 000), while the other half went to British-American researcher Professor John O’Keefe.

Profs. May-Britt and Edvard I. Moser, who have both received grants from the European Research Council (ERC), are the fifth husband and wife team to win a Nobel Prize.

‘We have the same vision. We love to understand. And we do that by talking to each other,’ Prof. May-Britt Moser, director of the Centre for Neural Computation in Trondheim, Norway, said in an audio interview posted on the Nobel Prize website.

European Commission President José Manuel Barroso said: ‘I warmly congratulate John O’Keefe, May‐Britt Moser and Edvard Moser on their achievement. I am particularly proud that both May-Britt and Edvard Moser are holders of European Research Council Advanced Grants.’

'I am particularly proud that both May-Britt and Edvard Moser are holders of European Research Council Advanced Grants.’

European Commission President José Manuel Barroso

The foundations for the discovery of the brain’s navigation system were laid in 1971 when Prof. O’Keefe, from University College London, UK, found so-called place cells in a rat’s brain that were activated when it went to a particular location.

Then in 2005, Prof. May-Britt Moser and Prof. Edvard I. Moser, director of the Kavli Institute for Systems Neuroscience in Trondheim, discovered so-called grid cells in rat brains that react to unique spatial patterns, allowing the brain to create a coordinates system. Together with the ‘place cells’ these form the brain’s positioning system.

Brain imaging has revealed that similar place and grid cells exist in the human brain, shedding light on how humans are able to locate themselves in time and space.

‘We’re just representatives of a large number of people who are working away at the hippocampus and memory and spatial navigation,’ Prof. O’Keefe said in an audio interview published on the Nobel Prize website.

EU research

The discovery fed into the EU-funded research project SPACEBRAIN, where the three researchers worked to understand exactly how the brain maintains its understanding of its position as it moves around. Prof. Edvard Moser has also supervised two Marie Skłodowska-Curie fellows to work on the problem.

Prof. Edvard Moser also coordinates the GRIDMAP project, funded under the EU's Future and Emerging Technologies (FET) scheme. The project aims to better understand the processes used by the mammalian brain to generate and read spatial information. This would help develop similar processes that could, for example, be used to help robots navigate.

The Mosers also coordinated an EU-funded project called NAPPY which looked at memory processing.

More info