John O’Keefe, the son of Irish immigrants from Cork, who was born in New York City in 1939, has received the Nobel Prize in Medicine for 2014.
O'Keefe, (75), is a British based neuroscientist and a professor at the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience and the Department of Anatomy (University College London).
He was awarded the prize for for his discovery of place cells in the hippocampus that allow the brain to have its own GPS system. His discoveries could have major impact on Alzheimer’s research and other brain diseases experts say.
O’Keefe, is to receive an honorary doctorate from University College Cork (UCC) in Ireland on 5 December 2014 in recognition of his enormous contributions to neuroscience.
Professor O’Keefe, whose father hailed from Newmarket, Co. Cork, and who still has family living in the area today, will also be guest speaker at a major symposium organized by UCC’s Department of Anatomy and Neuroscience in advance of the honorary conferring ceremony.
Andrew King, professor of neurophysiology at Oxford University, told The Guardian that “the discovery that neurons in the hippocampus possess “place fields” that fire when an animal is in a particular part of its environment had “revolutionized our understanding of how the brain knows where we are and is able to navigate within our surroundings”.
O’Keefe shares the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2014 together with married couple May-Britt Moser, and Edvard Moser from Norway.
Born in New York City to Irish immigrant parents, O'Keefe received a bachelor's degree from the City College of New York.
He went on to study for his doctoral degree at McGill University in Montreal.
He originally went to University College London in 1967 as a US National Institute of Mental Health postdoctoral fellow working with the late Patrick Wall and he has resided there ever since becoming a professor in 1987
The Nobel Assembly said the discoveries clearly show how the brain creates “a map of the space surrounding us and how we can navigate our way through a complex environment.” In 1971 O’Keefe, found that a certain type of nerve cell was always activated when a rat was at a certain place in a room.
Thirty-four years later his co-honorees May-Britt and Edvard Moser, of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology discovered another type of similar cell.
O’Keefe was awarded half of the 8m Swedish krona (around $1.1 million) prize while the other two shared the other half.
The Nobel assembly stated that that knowledge about the brain’s positioning system may “help us understand the mechanism underpinning the devastating spatial memory loss” that affects people with Alzheimer’s disease.”
John Stein, a professor of physiology at Oxford University, said “This is great news and well deserved. I remember how great was the scoffing in the early 1970s when John first described ‘place cells’ … ‘Bound to be an artifact’, ‘He clearly underestimates rats’ sense of smell’, were typical reactions. Now, like so many ideas that were at first highly controversial, people say ‘Well that’s obvious!’”