60 Minutes You Won’t Forget

UC Irvine’s very own James McGaugh, a world-renowned neurobiologist who has already rewritten textbooks with his influential research on memory, is making waves in his field again. He and his research colleagues are studying people with superior autobiographical memory, who can remember the details of almost any day of their lives.

“Their memories of things very far past are like what we remember from our yesterday,” McGaugh said. “They can recall who they went to lunch with on any particular day and these memories are very strong. What they remember, they do not forget, not for days or years.”

McGaugh was first introduced to this rare case of memory via e-mail. Jill Price, whose identity was noted only as “AJ” in an initial paper, directly contacted McGaugh claiming she had a memory problem — she could not forget.

After interviewing her, he tested her by asking random questions about things that had happened in the last decade. Price remembered everything he asked, from the date down to the very day of the week. He then asked her about what she was doing at a random date in her past and verified her responses by checking with a diary she brought with her.

After six years studying Price, McGaugh and colleague Dr. Larry Cahill published the first paper on superior autobiographical memory in 2006.

“I thought that was it,” laughed McGaugh. “But it turns out that that was just the beginning.”

The publicity they garnered from that paper led to more people stepping up, saying that they experienced the same unique superior memory. The National Public Radio, the Associated Press, Good Morning America and NBC Nightly News were just some of the news organizations that clamored to pick up the story.

McGaugh’s recent appearance on “60 Minutes” on Dec. 19, 2010 ultimately resulted in over 280 very detailed e-mails from people who claimed either that they have that kind of special memory or know of someone who does.

UCI undergraduate students are currently collecting these e-mails, screening them and testing potential subjects over the telephone to determine whether or not they qualify to be included in the study.

“When you think about it, this is still an extremely rare condition. Approximately 18.7 million people were broadcast that television show and only 280 contacted me, which is, quite obviously, well below 1 percent,” McGaugh said.

To date, McGaugh and the research team, which consists of four faculty members, two postdoctoral researchers, one graduate student and one assistant, who is the main coordinator, are studying 10 people. They expect to increase their sample size after the overwhelming response from the “60 Minutes” program.

Each subject undergoes a variety of tests, which include questions on major and personal events from the past to confirm their accuracy, MRI scans to see brain structure and saliva samples for genetic studies to determine whether they share a common genetic makeup.

They take numerous memory tests. The current subjects are all excellent in autobiographical memory tests, but their performance differs on standardized memory tests.

“They are not superior learners of all kinds of material,” said McGaugh. “Yes, they excel in their memory of past experiences and important events of the world, but, on average, they are no better than the rest of us on standardized memory tests.”

McGaugh also says that each subject explains his or her superior memory in a similar fashion. They claim that everything is catalogued in their minds and they are able to quickly flip through it to find the specific information they need. Essentially, it is as if they have a video in their minds that continuously plays their past.

“They always simply say, ‘I just see it,’ or ‘I just know it,’” McGaugh said. “They seem amazed at us just as we are at them. They wonder why we can’t do it too.”

Another similarity amongst the subjects is the age that they recognize they have such a unique ability, which is around 11 or 12. What is unknown, however, is whether they had the ability before adolescence and simply did not know that they possessed it.

McGaugh believes that, though it may have no direct, instantaneous effect on the field, the research on superior autobiographical memory will impact the general understanding of the subject, which is useful for anything that pertains to memory.

“Maybe we all have the information stored somewhere in our brain. Maybe it is like a computer that has all the information stored in it, but you can’t turn it on,” McGaugh said.  “These subjects appear to have access to it all — they can turn on the whole computer when we can only access some of it. Investigating them is likely to tell us much more about human memory.”

McGaugh has dedicated his career to studying the brain processes that make strong memory.

His work started when he was a graduate student. He began by researching chemical influences on memory, first giving drugs to animals shortly after they were trained on memory tasks. He discovered that the drugs enhanced memory and acted by promoting the storage of the information that was just acquired. McGaugh concluded that long-term memories are made slowly, rather than instantly, and drugs have a chance to build on that.

After that discovery, he and his research colleagues began thinking that there must be something in human bodies that does what these drugs do all the time, reasoning that stress hormones might fit that role.

Stress hormones, which include cortisol and adrenaline, are released from the adrenal gland after an emotional experience and travel up the blood stream to the brain. Testing of this hypothesis revealed that administration of these stress hormones had the same effect seen with the drugs. The findings indicated that stress hormones regulate the formation of memories of experiences.

McGaugh then investigated what happens in the brain and learned that hormones act on a very specific part of the brain, the amygdala, which is located in the medial temporal lobe. Simply put, different types of memories are regulated by different systems in the brain.

The amygdala is connected to many brain regions and, once activated, tells the other regions to make a memory. McGaugh and his students then determined that emotional experiences caused the release of norepinephrine within the amygdala, which is a key ingredient to making memory work. This discovery that hormones affect memory is now standard in current textbooks.

For his research accomplishments, McGaugh has received countless accolades and top honors. He recently received the Karl Lashley Prize in Neuroscience from the American Philosophical Society.  He was elected a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Brazilian and Mexican Academies of Sciences, all of which rank as some of the highest awards in his field.

UCI also honored him with the UCI medal in 1992 and named a building after him, McGaugh Hall, which is the biology building.

“That was pretty nice of the university to do that for me,” said a very humble McGaugh.

With increased media attention, more subjects with superior memory have contacted McGaugh, which leads to a greater sample size and more serious work. In the future, he and his research colleagues hope to get more subjects and begin more in-depth studies. They plan to use a broader array of tests, as well as a functional MRI to examine what the brain does as the subject is in the process of remembering. Getting more people is crucial in the next step of this research.

Most importantly, McGaugh strongly believes that the public deserves to know about any scientific finding.

“Science is not for scientists,” McGaugh said. “It is for everybody.”

The importance of contributing to the building of UCI is another point on which McGaugh prides himself. As a founding faculty member, he has been at UCI since before the beginning, arriving one year before it opened.

McGaugh has also served in various administrative positions at UCI, including Executive Vice Chancellor and Dean of Biological Sciences. He was the founding chair of the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior, which is one of the top departments of neurobiology in the nation.

Currently, McGaugh commits his time to his research, teaching advanced undergraduates and graduates, traveling and lecturing and writing. He is in constant collaboration with other scientists as he furthers the field of memory.

In his time outside his lab, McGaugh is also an amateur jazz musician and plays the alto saxophone and the clarinet. His jazz group plays locally, including once a month at the campus pub.

“From the very beginning, with the initial finding that we could enhance memory with stimulated drugs to identifying brain systems involved in regulating memory strength to my life now, it has all been extremely satisfying,” McGaugh said.