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These Scientists Just Won The Nobel Prize For Discovering Your Brain's GPS

This is how you know where you are.

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Three scientists who helped discover how the brain knows where it is have won this year's Nobel prize for medicine.

American-British scientist John O'Keefe (left) won half the prize for his 1971 discovery of "place cells" in the brain, while Norwegian scientists May‐Britt and Edvard Moser (who are also a married couple) won for their 2005 discovery of "grid cells" in rats.

Together, the place cells and grid cells form the brain's "internal GPS", helping it work out where it is – and where it's going.

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The cells live close to each other in two nearby areas of the brain – the place cells in the hippocampus, and the grid cells in the entorhinal cortex.

Specific place cells are triggered when you're in specific locations – they're how the brain remembers those places.

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O'Keefe showed that they aren't just responding to a particular sight – a landmark, say – but are actually building an abstract, internal map of how particular places relate to each other that's independent of what you can immediately see or hear.

So when you're standing somewhere familiar, the place cells don't just remind you that you've been there before, but give you a sense of where that is in relation to other places. If you've ever tried walking a new route between two familiar locations – say, your office and the burrito place – that's your place cells at work.

Grid cells, meanwhile, form a coordinate system, turning on and off in unique patterns as you (well, rats) move around.

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The grid cells are triggered in an extraordinarily regular pattern – they fire when the rat passes a point in a triangular grid, regardless of what direction it's going or how fast it's moving. If, as their name suggests, place cells are the landmarks on your mental map of the world, grid cells are the base grid, letting the brain keep track of exactly where it is.

So far, grid cells have only been confirmed in rats (the discovery is still pretty new), but there's some good evidence that suggests humans have them too.

So, next time you're trying to find your way around, thank your place cells and grid cells – and the people who discovered them.

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