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2008 Neuroscience Prize

John O'Keefe

John O'Keefe is Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience in the Department of Cell and Developmental Biology at University College London.

Born in New York City to Irish immigrant parents, O'Keefe received a bachelor's degree from the City College of New York. He went on to study for his doctoral degree in physiological psychology with Ronald Melzack in Donald O. Hebb's department at McGill University in Montreal. He originally went to University College London in 1967 as a US National Institute of Mental Health 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.

Throughout his career, O'Keefe has studied the hippocampus and its role in memory - the loss of which is prominent in disorders such as Alzheimer's disease. He studies how networks of hippocampal neurons code for locations in an environment. He discovered place cells in the hippocampus.

O'Keefe is the co-author with Lynn Nadel of the ground-breaking 1978 book The Hippocampus as a Cognitive Map in which they set out the spatial theory of hippocampal function (www.cognitivemap.net). This theory identifies spatial learning, navigation and exploration of new environments as important functions of the hippocampus, and shows how an extension of this spatial system might underpin human episodic memory.

More recently O'Keefe has demonstrated that, in addition to firing rate, the timing of pyramidal cell action potentials relative to the EEG theta rhythm carries spatial information. This phase code provides some of the best evidence for the role of timing and oscillations as fundamental components of information representation in the mammalian central nervous system.

A Fellow of the Royal Society and the Academy of Medical Sciences, O'Keefe was awarded the Feldberg Foundation Prize in 2001 for work in medical and biological science, the 2006 Grawemeyer prize in psychology with Lynn Nadel, and the 2007 British Neuroscience Association Award for Outstanding Contribution to British Neuroscience. In July, 2008, he will receive the Federation of European Neuroscience Societies European Neuroscience Journal Award which is given in recognition of excellence in all areas of neuroscience.

O'Keefe is a past chair of the British Neuroscience Association and has served on the councils of the Royal Society and the International Brain Research Organization.

In addition to many journal articles, and the Hippocampus as a Cognitive Map with Nadel (www.cognitivemap.net), he has edited two books on hippocampal function:

    BURGESS, N., JEFFERY, K.J., & O'KEEFE, J. eds (1998) The Hippocampal and Parietal Foundations of Spatial Cognition. Oxford University Press, Oxford

    ANDERSEN P, MORRIS R, AMARAL D, BLISS T & O'KEEFE J (2007) The Hippocampus Book Oxford University Press, New York

He has been happily married for 44 years to Eileen O'Keefe, a Professor of Public Health, whom he first met in a philosophy class at CCNY. They have two grown sons, Kieron and Riley. When not in the laboratory, he is an enthusiastic basketball player and still dreams of competing in the NBA. On most Sundays, he and Eileen can be found traipsing the hills or beaches of southern England, discussing philosophy.