John O'Keefe

University of London

Election Year: 2016
Primary Section: 28, Systems Neuroscience
Membership Type: Member


John O’Keefe is a cognitive neuroscientist interested in the role of the hippocampal formation in spatial memory and navigation. He was born in Harlem, New York and grew up in the South Bronx. He originally studied aeronautical engineering in the evening at New York University but switched to City College of New York from which he graduated with a BA in Psychology. After graduate studies in the Psychology Department at McGill University, he moved to London in 1967 as an NIH postdoctoral fellow at University College London where he has been ever since. He is currently Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at University College London where he works in the Department of Cell and Developmental Biology and the Sainsbury Wellcome Centre for Neural Circuits and Behavior. He is a fellow of the Royal Society of London and the National Academy of Sciences. His honors include the Grawemeyer Award in Psychology (2006), Gruber Neuroscience prize (2008), Royal Society Ferrier Prize Lecture (2013), Horowitz Prize (2013), Kavli Prize in Neuroscience  (2014), and the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine (2014).

Research Interests

O’Keefe is interested in the role of the hippocampal formation in spatial memory and navigation. In 1971, he discovered that the rat hippocampus contained cells which selectively signal an animal’s spatial location.  The discovery of ‘place cells’ suggested that this part of the brain might function as a cognitive map, a notion developed extensively by himself and Nadel in a book published in 1978 ( In 1993, his lab reported that, in addition to the place cell firing rate, the code for location was based on the timing of spikes referenced to the 7-11 Hz hippocampal theta rhythm. This is one of the best examples in neuroscience of the use of the timing of action potentials to represent information. Recently, he and colleagues have studied the properties of the entorhinal cortical grid cells one of the major inputs to the hippocampus. With their beautiful hexagonal symmetry, many believe them ideally suited to provide the metric for the cognitive map although other spatial functions are also possible.

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