John O'Keefe (neuroscientist)

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John O'Keefe
John O'Keefe (neuroscientist) 2014.jpg
O'Keefe in September 2014
Born (1939-11-18) November 18, 1939 (age 81)
New York City, New York
  • United States
  • United Kingdom
Fields Neuroscience
Institutions University College London
Alma mater
Thesis Response properties of amygdalar units in the freely moving cat (1967)
Doctoral advisor Ronald Melzack
Known for Discovering place cells
Notable awards

John O'Keefe, FRS FMedSci (born November 18, 1939) is an American-British neuroscientist and a professor at the Sainsbury Wellcome Centre for Neural Circuits and Behaviour and the Research Department of Cell and Developmental Biology at University College London. He is known for his discovery of place cells in the hippocampus and his discovery that they show a specific kind of temporal coding in the form of theta phase precession. In 2014, he received the Kavli Prize in Neuroscience "for the discovery of specialized brain networks for memory and cognition", together with Brenda Milner and Marcus Raichle. He shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2014 together with May-Britt Moser and Edvard Moser.


Born in New York City to Irish immigrant parents, O'Keefe attended Regis High School (Manhattan) and received a BA degree from the City College of New York.[1][2] He went on to study at McGill University in Montreal, where he obtained an MA degree in 1964, and a PhD degree in Donald Hebb's Department of Psychology in 1967, supervised by Ronald Melzack.[3][4][5] He originally went to University College London in 1967 as a US NIMH postdoctoral fellow working with the late Patrick Wall. He has been there ever since, and was awarded a professorship in 1987. He is a citizen of both the United States and the United Kingdom.

Discovery of place cells

O’Keefe and his student Jonathan Dostrovsky discovered place cells by systematically analyzing the environmental factors influencing the firing properties of individual hippocampal neurons.[6][7] His many publications on place cells have been highly cited. In addition, he published an influential book with Lynn Nadel, proposing the functional role of the hippocampus as a cognitive map for spatial memory function.[8] In extensions of his work, place cells have been analyzed experimentally or simulated in models in hundreds of papers.[9][10][11]

Discovery of theta phase precession

In further research on place cells, O’Keefe found evidence for a distinctive variation of temporal coding of information by the timing of action potentials in place cells, relative to an oscillatory EEG cycle known as the theta rhythm, as opposed to spike timing within a single cell. In a 1993 paper, he and Michael Recce demonstrated that place cells spike at different phases relative to theta rhythm oscillations in the local field potential of the hippocampus.[12] As a rat enters the firing field of a place cell, the spiking starts at late phases of theta rhythm, and as the rat moves through the firing field, the spikes shift to earlier phases of the theta cycle. This effect has been replicated in numerous subsequent papers, providing evidence for the coding of sensory input by the timing of spikes. Numerous models have addressed the potential physiological mechanisms of theta phase precession.

Prediction and discovery of boundary vector cells

In a paper in 1996, O'Keefe and Neil Burgess presented data showing shifts in the position and size of place cell firing fields when the barriers defining the environment were shifted.[13] In this and subsequent papers, they presented a model of this phenomenon predicting the existence of boundary vector cells that would respond at a specific distance from barriers in the environment.[14] Several years later, this explicit theoretical prediction was supported by extensive experimental data demonstrating boundary cells with the predicted properties in the subiculum[15] and the medial entorhinal cortex (where they are sometimes referred to as border cells).

Awards and honours

O'Keefe was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS) in 1992 and a Fellow of the Academy of Medical Sciences (FMedSci) in 1998. In addition, he received the Feldberg Foundation Prize in 2001 and the Grawemeyer Award in psychology in 2006 (with Lynn Nadel). In 2007, he received the British Neuroscience Association Award for Outstanding Contribution to British Neuroscience and in 2008 he received the Federation of European Neuroscience Societies European Journal of Neuroscience Award. Later in 2008, O'Keefe was awarded the Gruber Prize in Neuroscience.[16][17] He was appointed as the inaugural director of the Sainsbury Wellcome Centre for Neural Circuits and Behaviour.[18] In 2013 he received the Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize (with Edvard Moser and May-Britt Moser).[19] In 2014, he was a co-recipient of the Kavli Prize awarded by the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters with Brenda Milner and Marcus Raichle.[20] In 2016 he was elected to the National Academy of Sciences.[21]

Further, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2014, with May-Britt Moser and Edvard Moser.[22]

O'Keefe received an honorary Doctor of Science degree from University College Cork on 15 December 2014.[23] In June 2015, he has also received one from McGill University, his Alma mater.[24]

On 10 March 2015 O'Keefe was the guest on BBC Radio 4's The Life Scientific[25]


  1. "John O'Keefe | The Gruber Foundation". Retrieved 2013-11-23.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. "John O'Keefe, Class of '63, Wins Nobel Prize". The City College of New York. 6 October 2014. Retrieved 8 October 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. "John O'Keefe". Kavli Prize. Kavli Foundation. Retrieved 11 October 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. "McGill grad John O'Keefe wins Nobel Prize in medicine". Media Relations Office of McGill University. 6 October 2014. Retrieved 8 October 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. O'Keefe, John. "Response properties of amygdalar units in the freely moving cat". McGill University eScholarship. McGill University. Retrieved 6 October 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. O'Keefe j, D. J. (1971). "The hippocampus as a spatial map. Preliminary evidence from unit activity in the freely-moving rat". Brain Research. 34 (1): 171–175. doi:10.1016/0006-8993(71)90358-1. PMID 5124915.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. O'Keefe, J (1976). "Place units in the hippocampus of the freely moving rat". Experimental neurology. 51 (1): 78–109. doi:10.1016/0014-4886(76)90055-8. PMID 1261644.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. O'Keefe J, Nadel L (1978) The Hippocampus as a Cognitive Map. Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK
  9. O'Keefe, J (1979). "A review of the hippocampal place cells". Progress in neurobiology. 13 (4): 419–39. doi:10.1016/0301-0082(79)90005-4. PMID 396576.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  10. Best, P. J.; White, A. M.; Minai, A (2001). "Spatial processing in the brain: The activity of hippocampal place cells". Annual Review of Neuroscience. 24: 459–86. doi:10.1146/annurev.neuro.24.1.459. PMID 11283318.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  11. Moser, E.; Kropff, E.; Moser, M. (2008). "Place cells, grid cells, and the brain's spatial representation system". Annual Review of Neuroscience. 31: 69–89. doi:10.1146/annurev.neuro.31.061307.090723. ISSN 0147-006X. PMID 18284371.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  12. O'Keefe, J; Recce, M. L. (1993). "Phase relationship between hippocampal place units and the EEG theta rhythm". Hippocampus. 3 (3): 317–30. doi:10.1002/hipo.450030307. PMID 8353611.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  13. O'Keefe, J.; Burgess, N. (1996). "Geometric determinants of the place fields of hippocampal neurons". Nature. 381 (6581): 425–428. doi:10.1038/381425a0. PMID 8632799.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  14. Hartley, Tom; Burgess, N.; Lever, C.; Cacucci, F.; O'Keefe, J. (2000). "Modeling place fields in terms of the cortical inputs to the hippocampus". Hippocampus. 10 (4): 369–379. doi:10.1002/1098-1063(2000)10:4<369::AID-HIPO3>3.0.CO;2-0. ISSN 1050-9631. PMID 10985276.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  15. Lever, C.; Burton, S.; Jeewajee, A.; O'Keefe, J.; Burgess, N. (2009). "Boundary Vector Cells in the Subiculum of the Hippocampal Formation". Journal of Neuroscience. 29 (31): 9771–9777. doi:10.1523/JNEUROSCI.1319-09.2009. PMC 2736390. PMID 19657030.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  16. "UCL neuroscientist receives international prize for 'pioneering work'". 2008-06-23. Retrieved 2013-11-23.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  17. "John O'Keefe | The Gruber Foundation". Retrieved 2013-11-23.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  18. "Sainsbury Wellcome Centre for Neural Circuits and Behaviour". Gatsby. Retrieved 2013-11-23.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  19. Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize 2013.
  20. Bhattacharjee, Yudhijit (29 May 2014). "Nine Scientists Share Three Kavli Prizes".<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  21. National Academy of Sciences Members and Foreign Associates Elected, News from the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Sciences, May 3, 2016, retrieved 2016-05-14<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>.
  22. The 2014 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. nobelprize.or. 6 October 2014
  23. Roche, Barry, "UCC to honour Nobel Laureate", The Irish Times, 7 October 2014
  25. [1]

External links

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