UCL professor wins Kavli Prize in Neuroscience

29 May 2014

The 2014 Kavli Prize in Neuroscience was today awarded to Professor John O’Keefe, Director of the Sainsbury Wellcome Centre for Neural Circuits and Behaviour at UCL and affiliated faculty member in the UCL Research Department of Cell and Developmental Biology.

Professor John O'Keefe

Professor O’Keefe will share the award with Professor Brenda Milner of McGill University, Canada and Professor Marcus E. Raichle of Washington University in St.Louis, USA. The recipients have all played major roles in advancing understanding of memory and in the development of techniques to measure the brain. Professor O’Keefe was awarded the prize “for the discovery of specialized brain networks for memory and cognition.”

The Kavli Prize is awarded by The Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters and consists of a cash award of 1 million US dollars in each field, split evenly between the winners, and each laureate receives a gold medal and a scroll.

Professor John O’Keefe said: “It's a great thrill and an immense honour to be given this prestigious award for our work on the spatial memory and navigational functions of the hippocampus. I'm particularly pleased to share it with Professors Raichle and Milner, both pioneers in their field. Professor Milner was one of my teachers who originally inspired me to study the memory functions of the hippocampus. I look forward to spending many more years in the lab unravelling the mysteries of the hippocampus and memory.”

Throughout his career, Professor O’Keefe has studied the hippocampus and its role in spatial memory and navigation, the loss of which is prominent in disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease. His research has shown how networks of hippocampal neurons are involved in determining an animal’s location in the environment. He discovered that the hippocampus contains neurons that encode an animal’s specific location, called place cells.

This concept led him to propose that the hippocampus acts as a ‘cognitive map’ that represents environmental space and guides efficient navigation in animals and presumably in humans. A cognitive map represents an animal’s current environment, its position within it, and the location of both desirable objects such as food and threats to be avoided. This cognitive map can direct the animal’s behaviour on the basis of distances and directions towards desired goals or away from undesirable objects. In addition, the cognitive mapping system detects the absence of representations of novel environments and changes in maps of familiar environments and uses these mismatches to trigger and control exploration.

John O’Keefe has continued his work on how the cognitive map theory can be expanded to explain the episodic memory deficit in patients with hippocampal damage. Working with Neil Burgess, he has used computational models of the cognitive map to generate theoretical predictions of hippocampal function. These theoretical predictions can then be studied experimentally.

The work suggests that the hippocampus may play a role in episodic memory. Episodic memory involves the ability to learn, store, and retrieve information about unique personal experiences that occur in daily life. These memories typically include information about the time and place of an event, as well as detailed information about the event itself. The ability to describe the details of your first day at school, a recent holiday gathering or office meeting that took place in the previous weeks or months, for example, depends heavily on intact episodic memory function. It is known that one of the first noticeable symptoms displayed by Alzheimer’s patients is a deficit in their navigational ability; they tend to get lost in familiar environments. Knowing how this memory function should work in healthy people will help us to understand what has changed in patients with memory loss.

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  • Professor John O'Keefe (Courtesy of David Bishop, UCL)