Alumni in the Spotlight

John O' Keefe, 2014 Nobel Prize Winner for Phyisiology & Medicine


 Sainsbury Wellcome Centre for Neural Circuits and Behaviour
 Research Department of Cell and Developmental Biology
 University College London

 B.A.  City College of New York
 M.A. (1964) Department of Psychology, McGill University
 Ph.D. (1967) Department of Psychology, McGill University


About: John O’Keefe completed his undergraduate degree at City College of New York. His graduate degrees, MA (1964) and PhD in Physiological Psychology (1967) were obtained at McGill, under the supervision of the renowned pain researcher, Ronald Melzack

At that time, Donald Hebb was the head of the Department of Psychology and Brenda Milner was making great strides in understanding the role of the hippocampus in memory. These giants of Canadian psychology provided the young O’Keefe with ample inspiration and a thoroughly enriching education. Specifically, Brenda Milner’s work demonstrating the importance of the hippocampus in memory was of particular interest to John. He realized that further exploration of that brain structure with animal models could prove to be quite fruitful.

After his PhD, O’Keefe moved to University College London (UCL), where he remains to this day. At UCL, O’Keefe turned his attention back to Milner’s findings and the hippocampus. By that time, it was clear that the hippocampus was integral to forming new memories but its specific role in spatial memory was still relatively unknown. John used neurophysiological recordings to study how neuronal units fired within an environment. In 1971, he published preliminary data showing that a specific CA1 hippocampal unit fired when a rat was pointing in a particular direction but not when the rat faced a different direction. That is, different hippocampal neurons fired depending on the direction of the rat in the environment. These neuronal units came to be known as “place cells”. Over time, O’Keefe’s findings about place cells and spatial cognition have received broad support in the literature and from his colleagues. In 1978, he co-authored “The Hippocampus as a Cognitive Map” with Lynn Nadel, another McGill Psychology alumnus, in which they laid out a theory describing the hippocampus’ role in spatial cognition. The theory proposes that the hippocampus creates spatial maps of the environment. In each environment, the activity of different place cells serves as an internal positioning system that can provide the animal with an implicit sense of location. As a result, animals can creatively navigate an environment and are not limited to the same path when moving between locations. The spatial map allows them to understand their place and make adjustments to their route as necessary.

The discovery of hippocampal place cells has also been influential in understanding typical and atypical human cognition. For example, neuroimaging studies show that the human brain also has cells that operate in a similar fashion to rats’ place cells. This knowledge has been important in helping to understand why Alzheimer’s patients experience deficits in their spatial positioning system. In Alzheimer’s disease, place cells are some of the first to suffer.

The broad impact of John’s findings have granted him numerous awards. Along with Marcus Raichle and Brenda Milner, John O’Keefe won the 2014 Kavli Prize in Neuroscience “for the discovery of specialized brain networks for memory and cognition”. That same year, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine along with his former students May-Britt and Edvard Moser. John O’Keefe is a Fellow of the Royal Society and the Academy of Medical Sciences.

Matteo Bernabo
Department of Psychology, McGill University
Winter, 2015


Further Readings

O’Keefe, J. (1967). Response properties of amygdalar units in the freely moving cat. 

O’Keefe, J. & Dostrovsky, J. (1971). The hippocampus as a spatial map. Preliminary evidence from unit activity in the freely-moving rat. Brain Research, 34, 171-175.

O’Keefe, J. & Nadel, L. (1978). The Hippocampus as a Cognitive Map. Oxford University Press.

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