Horwitz Prize Awarded for Discoveries That Could Lead to New Alzheimer’s Treatments

Columbia to Award the 2013 Horwitz Prize to Edvard Moser, May-Britt Moser, and John O’Keefe for Discoveries That Have Illuminated How the Brain Calculates Location and Navigation

December 5, 2013

NEW YORK, NY – For discoveries about how the brain calculates and remembers where it is—which could be part of the foundation of memory—Columbia University will award the 2013 Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize to Edvard I. Moser, PhD, and May-Britt Moser, PhD, of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Norway, and John Michael O’Keefe, PhD, of University College London in the UK. Their work, conducted in animal models, may lead to new treatments for Alzheimer’s and other neurological disorders that affect the brain's spatial capabilities.

Established in 1967, the Horwitz Prize is Columbia University’s top honor for achievement in biology and biochemistry research.

“We are pleased to award our 2013 Horwitz Prize to Drs. Edvard Moser, May-Britt Moser, and John O’Keefe for the significant advancements they have made to the field of neuroscience,” said Lee Goldman, MD, dean of the faculties of health sciences and medicine at Columbia University Medical Center and executive vice president for health and biomedical sciences at Columbia University.

“John O’Keefe’s finding that part of the brain functions as a cognitive map was an important early milestone in the development of cognitive neuroscience, and the theoretical model of how the brain calculates its location—refined by Edvard and May-Britt Moser—is today a critical component of the study of hippocampal function,” said Gerard Karsenty, MD, PhD, chair of the Horwitz Prize Committee and of the Department of Genetics and Development at Columbia University Medical Center.

“How the brain records and recalls its trajectory through space is fundamental to understanding spatial memory,” said Nobel laureate Eric R. Kandel, MD, who is University Professor & the Kavli Professor of Brain Science, co-director of the Mortimer B. Zuckerman Mind Brain Behavior Institute, and director of the Kavli Institute for Brain Science, at Columbia University, and senior investigator, Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

In 1971, Dr. O’Keefe discovered specific cells in the hippocampus that record location. These place cells, as they are called, register the locations of specific landmarks, such as the laboratory, or the corner deli. While recording the firing of neurons in rats as they moved from one location to another, he found that each location was logged by its own unique set of nerve cells in the CA1 region of the hippocampus, suggesting that the cells form a virtual map of the animal’s location. The firing location of each cell was stable over time, and moving the animal to another location caused it to form a new map, using some of the same cells, in addition to new ones. When the animal was returned to its original location, it replayed the initial map that it had formed.

In 1996, Drs. Edvard Moser and May-Britt Moser, longtime collaborators who are married to each other, worked with Dr. O’Keefe, who became their mentor, to learn how to record the activity of cells in the hippocampus.

Nearly a decade later, the Moser team discovered cells, in the entorhinal cortex region in the brains of rats, which function as a navigation system. These grid cells, as they are called, are responsible for the animals’ knowing where they are, where they have been, and where they are going; they are constantly working to create a map of the outside world. Constructed in the nervous system from tactile, visual, and other sensory input, grid cells have provided fundamental insights into how spatial location and memory are computed in the brain. The mapping information flows from the entorhinal cortex to the hippocampus and then back, and scientists are now working to understand how the grid cells inform place cells, and vice versa.

Because the entorhinal cortex, which contains the grid cell navigation system, is often damaged in the early stages of Alzheimer's disease, the work by the Mosers and Dr. O’Keefe on how memory and cognitive ability are lost has great potential significance for Alzheimer's research. Scientists think that these findings may explain why getting lost is frequently an early sign of Alzheimer’s and why memory fails as the disease progresses. Dr. O’Keefe’s group has already shown that the place cells in a mouse model of dementia are less accurate at identifying the animal's location and that the magnitude of neuronal impairment correlates with deficits in spatial memory, as well as the amount of neuropathological amyloid plaque.

“The contributions of these three scientists to neuroscience make them worthy recipients of the 2013 Horwitz Prize,” said Michael Purdy, PhD, executive vice president for research, Columbia University. “Their theoretical insights—as well as the fact that John O’Keefe trained Edvard and May-Britt Moser in a research technique that became pivotal to their work—confirm the value of encouraging young scientists to connect with mentors in their field to learn technical skills and research strategies.”

Awardee Biographies

Edvard Moser, PhD, is professor of neuroscience, director of the Kavli Institute for Systems Neuroscience, and co-director of the Centre for Neural Computation, at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim, Norway. He received a master’s degree in neurobiology from the University of Oslo in Norway, where he also earned a PhD in neurophysiology.

May-Britt Moser, PhD, is professor of neuroscience and director of the Centre for Neural Computation at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. She received a master’s degree in neurobiology from the University of Oslo, where she also earned a PhD in neurophysiology.

Together, Edvard and May-Britt Moser have been recognized both in Norway and internationally with numerous awards and election to prestigious scientific associations, including Academia Europaea and the European Molecular Biology Organization. They have collaborated on more than 60 publications in peer-reviewed publications.

John O’Keefe, PhD, is professor of cognitive neuroscience and director of the Sainsbury Wellcome Centre for Neural Circuits and Behaviour at University College London in the UK. He received a bachelor's degree in psychology from City College of New York and a PhD in physiological psychology from McGill University in Montreal. Dr. O’Keefe has been honored around the world for his work in cognitive neuroscience and is an elected fellow of the Royal Society and the Academy of Medical Sciences. He has authored more than 110 papers in peer-reviewed publications.

The Horwitz Prize is widely considered to be a precursor to a Nobel. Of the 91 Horwitz Prize winners to date, 43 have gone on to receive Nobel prizes. Most recently, James E. Rothman, PhD, a 2002 Horwitz Prize winner and adjunct professor of physiology & cellular biophysics at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, shared the 2013 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. For a list of previous Horwitz Prize awardees, please click here.

The Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize was established under the will of the late S. Gross Horwitz through a bequest to Columbia University. It is named in honor of the donor’s mother, Louisa Gross Horwitz, who was the daughter of Dr. Samuel David Gross (1805–89), a prominent Philadelphia surgeon who served as president of the American Medical Association and wrote “Systems of Surgery.”

The 2013 Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize Lectures will be held on Thursday, Jan. 16, 2014, followed by an awards ceremony.

-          Dr. O’Keefe will present his lecture, “The Hippocampal Cognitive Map: Past, Present and Future,” from 10–11 am in the Davis Auditorium, Room 412, 530 W. 120th St., on Columbia University’s Morningside Campus.

-          Dr. Edvard Moser will present his lecture, “Grid Cells and Neural Maps of Space,” from 12:30–1:30 pm in the Hammer Health Sciences Center, Room 401, 701 W. 168th St., at Columbia University Medical Center.

-          Dr. May-Britt Moser will present her lecture, “Hippocampus, Space, and Memory,” from 3:30–4:30 pm in the Alumni Auditorium, College of Physicians & Surgeons, 650 W. 168th St., at Columbia University Medical Center.

For more information about the Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize and the Jan. 16 lectures, please visit http://www.cumc.columbia.edu/research/horwitz-prize.

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