1) First to correlate firing of neuronal cells to specific behaviors; 2) Head-direction cells, part of the neural basis of navigation and spatial behavior in animals.


SUNY Downstate Medical Center


James B. Ranck, Jr., MD, SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor Emeritus of Physiology and Pharmacology


Dr. Ranck is a biophysicist who specializes in the physics of current flow in brain tissue. He was one of the pioneers in recording electrical transmissions from single neurons in awake, behaving animals (rats). His research provided basic data for studies that employed electrical stimulation of the central nervous system. His 1973 paper in the journal Experimental Neurology is considered seminal and a standard for behavioral electrophysiology, in that it was the first to correlate firing of neuronal cells to specific behaviors, in live time. Additionally, he collaborated with scientists at other institutions who discovered two other cell groups: John O’Keefe, PhD, of University College London, who discovered place cells in 1971 and Edvard Moser, PhD and May-Britt Moser, PhD, both from the Kavli Institute in Norway, who discovered grid cells in 2005. This triad of cells (head-direction, grid, and place) are critical to navigation – how does the brain know where we are and how does it know how to gets to where we are going? Illustrating how important this area of brain research is to the medical and scientific community, O’Keefe and the Mosers were awarded the 2014 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Ranck’s work is considered foundational to their discoveries.


Ranck discovered head direction cells in 1983.