On October 6, 2014, the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine was given to John O'Keefe and his peers May-Britt Moser and Edvard Moser. The prize, awarded for outstanding achievement in the life sciences and medicine, was given to the researchers for their work in discovering a network of cells that make up the brain's navigational system.
O'Keefe, a professor at the University College of London, was given half of the award. Working on the assumption that the ability for rats to learn how to find their way through a maze was connected to a specific area of the brain, he began a study that recorded electric signals from nerve cells in rats as they maneuvered, hoping to triangulate the exact area. He found that the hippocampus became active when rats were present in certain environments. This discovery confirmed that the hippocampus contributes to memories relating to the positional system of the brain and that the cells must form an inner map of the rat's location. The cells discovered were named "place cells" and inspired the Mosers' work. May-Britt and Edvard Moser are two married scientists working at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. The two worked under O'Keefe briefly in 1995 and went on to discover a section of cells in the entorhinal cortex. This region, located near the hippocampus, is triggered as rats move past a location that it has seen before. The cells, distributed in a hexagonal grid, were named "grid cells."
The cells discovered by the scientist are especially relevant to Alzheimer's research. This is due to the overlap between the perceived mechanisms of Alzheimer's and the "place" and "grid" cells. The entorhinal cortex connects the hippocampi to the neocortex, which holds the bulk of our brain's gray matter. In the presence of Alzheimer's, these components break down and lead to disorientation. By discovering the original components, scientists are able to identify the progression of deterioration and make an attempt to identify factors that lead to it.
Research such as this adds to the base of knowledge that we have in treating Alzheimer's. Currently, over 5 million Americans are living with this disease. 500,000 people are dying from the disease and it has been determined that one in three seniors die with Alzheimer's. The raw numbers and the blatant lack of treatment make Alzheimer's an issue of contention. More must be done to combat the disease and it starts with research done by scientists of the likes of O'Keefe and the Mosers. This prize does not only honor the achievement of dedicated scientists, but brings attention to a disease that is plaguing a large portion of the population. With continuing effort and research, treatment can surely be found and work can be done to mitigate the disease's effects on the nation.