Healthcare Technology Featured Article

October 07, 2014

Discovery of 'Inner GPS' Merits Nobel Prize for Medicine

Three individuals took home the Nobel Prize for medicine this year for discovering how the human brain's internal navigational system works.

According to Reuters, the team of John O'Keefe and May-Britt and Edvard Moser, a married couple, won the prize this past Monday after demonstrating that they had figured out the brain's inner GPS works and therefore may have uncovered the secrets behind why humans have strokes and develop Alzheimer's disease. And they may have also discovered a way to stop those events from happening.

This prize has been a long time coming for O'Keefe and the Moser couple. O'Keefe, back in 1971, first discovered a type of nerve cell in the region of the brain called the hippocampus. He found out that a certain type of nerve cell was always active when a rat was in a certain place in a room, and by monitoring the other cells around that cell, he determined that together they formed a group of "place cells" and that those "place cells" formed the map of a room.

Later, in 1996, the Mosers worked with O'Keefe to learn about the activity in the hippocampus. After studying the effects of the "place cells" for nearly a decade, they came across cells in the entorhinal cortex region of rats' brains, and in that region they discovered the "grid cells" that are responsible for creating the map of outside space. These cells allow animals to know where their bodies are located, where their bodies have been, and where their bodies are going.

It is for that breakthrough that the Nobel Prize has found its way to the group's hands. More than just allowing researchers to analyze how brains form a picture of a room, the cells in the hippocampus and entorhinal cortex could lead medical researchers to figuring how patients who have had strokes, or who have Alzheimer's disease, lose their senses of spatial awareness. Unfortunately, this is only the beginning stages of such developments, and that means that it will not likely lead directly to any sort of cure or dramatic insight in the near future. Yet, it is a solid beginning for what could be a prosperous future for many patients afflicted with serious illnesses and deadly diseases.

For pharmaceutical companies and healthcare operations such as hospitals and elderly care facilities, this could be the beginning of a solution for some of the most drastic problems in medicine. Alzheimer's affects nearly 44 million people every year across the globe, and it is a possibility that those people will, in one form or another, lose spatial recognition at some point in their lives. The discovery of inner GPS could eventually provide those 44 million, as well as many others, with hope for more functional lives, if not a cure.

Edited by Maurice Nagle

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