John O'Keefe (neuroscientist)

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John O'Keefe is a neuroscientist and a professor at the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience and the Department of Anatomy (University College London). He is known for his discovery of place cells in the hippocampus and his discovery that they show temporal coding in the form of theta phase precession.


O’Keefe grew up in New York City, and received a B.A. at City College of New York.[1] followed by a Ph.D. from McGill University where he first worked on techniques for recording of single neuron activity in animals. He then took a position at University College London as a postdoctoral fellow funded by NIMH, and became a professor there in 1987.

Discovery of place cells[edit]

O’Keefe discovered place cells by systematically analyzing the environmental factors influencing the firing properties of individual hippocampal neurons.[2][3] 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.[4] In extensions of his work, place cells have been analyzed experimentally or simulated in models in hundreds of papers.[5][6][7]

Discovery of theta phase precession[edit]

In further research on place cells, O’Keefe described experimental data that indicates temporal coding by the timing of action potentials. In a 1993 paper, he demonstrated that place cells spike at different phases relative to theta rhythm oscillations in the local field potential of the hippocampus.[8] 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 different models have addressed the potential physiological mechanisms of theta phase precession.

Prediction and discovery of boundary vector cells[edit]

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.[9] 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.[10] Several years later, this explicit theoretical prediction was supported by extensive experimental data demonstrating boundary cells with the predicted properties in the subiculum[11] and the medial entorhinal cortex (where they are sometimes referred to as border cells).

Recent awards and positions[edit]

He is a Fellow of the Royal Society and of the U.K. Academy of Medical Sciences. In addition, he has been awarded 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.[12][13] He was appointed as the inaugural director of the Sainsbury Wellcome Centre for Neural Circuits and Behavior.[14] In 2013 he received the Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize (with Edvard Moser and May-Britt Moser).[15] 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.[16]


  1. ^ "John O'Keefe | The Gruber Foundation". Retrieved 2013-11-23. 
  2. ^ 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
  3. ^ O'Keefe J (1976) Place units in the hippocampus of the freely moving rat. Experimental Neurology 51: 78-109
  4. ^ O'Keefe J, Nadel L (1978) The Hippocampus as a Cognitive Map. Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK
  5. ^ O’Keefe J (1979) A review of the hippocampal place cells. Prog. Neurobiol. 13: 419-439.
  6. ^ Best PJ, White AM, Minai A (2001) Spatial processing in the brain: The activity of hippocampal place cells. Annu Rev Neurosci. 24:459-486.
  7. ^ Moser EI, Kropff E, Moser MB. (2008) Place cells, grid cells, and the brain's spatial representation system. Annu Rev Neurosci. 31:69-89.
  8. ^ O'Keefe J, Recce ML (1993) Phase relationship between hippocampal place units and the EEG theta rhythm. Hippocampus 3: 317-30
  9. ^ O’Keefe J, Burgess N (1996) Geometric determinants of the place fields of hippocampal neurons. Nature 381: 425-428
  10. ^ Hartley T, Burgess N, Lever C, Cacucci F, O'Keefe J (2000) Modelling place fields in terms of the cortical inputs to the hippocampus. Hippocampus 10: 369-79
  11. ^ 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: 9771-9777
  12. ^ "UCL neuroscientist receives international prize for ‘pioneering work’". 2008-06-23. Retrieved 2013-11-23. 
  13. ^ "John O'Keefe | The Gruber Foundation". Retrieved 2013-11-23. 
  14. ^ "Sainsbury Wellcome Centre for Neural Circuits and Behaviour". Gatsby. Retrieved 2013-11-23. 
  15. ^ Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize 2013
  16. ^ "Nine Scientists Share Three Kavli Prizes".