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Apodaca: Unlocking the mysteries of memory

February 15, 2014|By Patrice Apodaca

What is memory?

Since the first attempts to answer that question emerged in the late 19th century, scientists have made gradual but significant progress toward understanding exactly what memory is and how it works. Among today's leading memory experts, few, if any, have had a greater impact than UC Irvine's James McGaugh.

A distinguished professor and fellow at UCI's Center for the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory, McGaugh's resume could fill this newspaper. As a scientist, he's devoted his life to advancing our knowledge of how memories are formed, retained and retrieved.

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The spectacled, white-haired, clarinet-playing Newport Beach resident, who recently met with me in his modest office at the university, is a scientist's scientist — patient, self-effacing and all about the work. He leaves it to others to assign the accolades and welcomes efforts to build on his groundbreaking research.

Yet he's also highly sensitive to the importance of his endeavors. Indeed, it is the realization that memory is central to all that we are which continues to drive him decades after he began his quest.

"Memories are the bridge between the past and future," he said. "When you don't have your memories, you don't have a future."

Though McGaugh is more accustomed to detailed technical analysis, he is so passionate about his work that he generously agreed to try to explain his findings to a science dummy like me. With advance apologies if I mangle this, I'll attempt to impart some of his fascinating insights.

McGaugh was a music major at San Jose State in the early 1950s when a psychology course sparked his interest in the brain. He later earned his doctorate in physiological psychology at UC Berkeley. At UCI since the mid-1960s, his career has included stints as department heads and even vice chancellor for a while. Still teaching, today he continues the memory research that has earned him worldwide notice.

His status as a top memory researcher came early, in graduate school, when he conducted experiments to learn if certain drugs could be used to manipulate memories in laboratory rats. What he discovered rocked the field.

The drugs, neurotransmitters, were found to have a significant impact, but only when given within a short time frame after the memory was introduced. This suggested that it takes time for the brain to completely form a memory, a consolidation process that McGaugh likens to the setting of Jell-o or concrete.

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