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John O'Keefe

John O'Keefe

Professor John O'Keefe FMedSci FRS


Elected: 1992


John O’Keefe is a neuroscientist and Nobel laureate whose research transformed our understanding of spatial memory in the brain. He discovered that animals have an ‘internal GPS’, where individual cells respond to an animal’s physical position in space, creating a cognitive map. John’s insight fundamentally shows how we navigate through a complex world.

Studying the hippocampus in the brain of rats, John used techniques to look at the activity of single brain cells and was amazed to find that each cell — now called a place cell — responded when the rat was in a specific physical location within an environment. Together these cells form a cognitive map of each environment.

His finding sparked further research into the neural basis of the cognitive map, revealing other spatial cells: head direction cells, which form an internal compass, and grid cells, which code for the distance moved in a particular direction. This system enables complex route planning in a changing world. For his seminal work, John shared the 2014 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

Interest and expertise

Subject groups

  • Anatomy, physiology and neurosciences
    • Behavioural neuroscience


Hippocampus, Animal navigation, cognition, Learning and memory


  • Ferrier Medal and Lecture

    No citation available for this award.

  • Kavli Prize

    In the field of neuroscience for the discovery of specialized brain networks for memory and cognition.

  • Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine

    For their discoveries of cells that constitute a positioning system in the brain.

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