The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2014
Born: 18 November 1939, New York, NY, USA
Affiliation at the time of the award: University College, London, United Kingdom
Prize motivation: "for their discoveries of cells that constitute a positioning system in the brain."
Prize share: 1/2
John O'Keefe was born in New York City, and has dual US-British citizenship. He received a PhD in physiological psychology at McGill University in Montreal, Canada in 1967, and then moved to England to do research at University College London. He stayed in London and in 1987 was appointed professor of cognitive neuroscience at University College. John O'Keefe is currently director of the Sainsbury Wellcome Centre for Neural Circuits and Behaviour at University College.
The awareness of one's location and how to find the way to other places is crucial for both humans and animals. To understand the ability to orient ourselves in space, John O'Keefe studied the movements of rats and signals from nerve cells in the hippocampus, an area located in the center of the brain. In 1971 he discovered that when a rat was at a certain location in a room, certain cells were activated, and that when the rat moved to another location, other cells became activated. That is to say, the cells form a kind of internal map of the room.