Most people can find their ways through space with relative ease, and the winners of this year's Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine uncovered the biological basis for this ability.
"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, demonstrating a cellular basis for higher cognitive function," the Nobel Assembly says.
Half of the prize is being awarded to the University College London's John O'Keefe who discovered in 1971 so-called 'place cells' that are active in the hippocampus of an animal only when it is in a certain location and orientation in its environment.
The other half of the prize is being jointly awarded to May-Britt Moser and Edvard Moser, a married couple working at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, who in 2005 uncovered 'grid cells' in the entorhinal cortex of the brain that were activated in a specific pattern as an animal moved through a room.
"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," Juleen Zierath, chair of the medicine prize committee, tells the Associated Press. "I think, without these cells, we would have a really hard time to survive."
These findings may also shed light on neurological disorders like Alzheimer's disease, in which sufferers can become disoriented and lost, as the hippocampus and entorhinal cortex are affected early in the course of the disease
Upon learning that she'd won, May-Britt Moser was in shock. "This is crazy," May-Britt Moser tells the AP.
Her husband, the AP notes, was on a plane when the announcements were made and discovered he'd won when the plane landed and he had a number of missed calls, texts, and emails.
O'Keefe, meanwhile, was reached at his home, after an alert from his office saying that a Swedish gentleman was trying to reach him. "Before I called him, I took a long, deep breath," O'Keefe says.