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Chasing Memory / First of four parts

One man's epic quest for understanding

What happens when we encounter a new experience that enables us to recall it later at will? And what goes wrong when we can't? Gary Lynch has spent decades seeking the answers.

August 19, 2007|Terry McDermott | Times Staff Writer

The first time I spoke with the neuroscientist Gary Lynch, the conversation went something like this:

Me: I'm interested in spending time in a laboratory like yours, where the principal focus is the study of memory. I'd like to explain how memory functions and fails, and why, and use the work in the lab as a means to illustrate how we know what we know.

Lynch: You'd be welcome to come here. This would actually be a propitious time to be in the lab.

Me: Why's that?

Lynch: Because we're about to nail this mother to the door.

Lynch is a neuroscientist at UC Irvine, where he has spent 37 years trying to uncover the biochemical mechanisms of memory.

He has, for almost the length of his career, been trying to answer essentially a single pair of questions: What happens in the brain when a human being encounters a new experience so that he or she can recall it at will tonight, tomorrow, in 2025? And what goes wrong when we can't remember?

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, August 26, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part Page News Desk 2 inches; 81 words Type of Material: Correction
"Chasing memory": The glossary accompanying the Aug . 19 memory article in Section A defined genes as "strings of amino acids that make up an organism's genome, a sort of blueprint from which the organism is built. Individual genes are strings of amino acids; each string contains instructions for building a particular protein." The definition should have said: "Genes: strings of DNA that form a blueprint from which the organism is built. Each gene contains instructions for building a particular protein."

This second question has in the last several years taken on great weight.

We are on the verge of a dementia pandemic. It is estimated that by 2040, 100 million people worldwide will suffer from Alzheimer's disease, Huntington's, Parkinson's or some other form of dementia. Science has been able to do precious little to combat these diseases, in large part because the understanding of the underlying cognitive processes has been meager. Thousands of scientists have spent countless years seeking and largely failing to unearth the secrets within the human brain.

Medical advances have allowed more and more people to live longer but have been unable to relieve longevity of its principal bane -- the breakdown of mental processes, especially memory. When memory loss occurs, it seldom fails to impress upon its victims and those who know them the extent to which our memories constitute our selves.

That breakdowns occur is not surprising. Consider: You're 50 years old. What's your time in the 100-yard dash? How does that compare to the 18-year-old you? Why would your brain be exempt from declining in analogous ways? It isn't. So much goes wrong so often that many malfunctions are considered ordinary and are often referred to collectively as normal cognitive decline.

Before that first conversation with Lynch, I already knew that he had been an often polarizing figure in his field, that he had a reputation for being pugnacious, and that he had been uncannily right about a lot of things over a very long time.

In the subsequent two years, I spent a great deal of time in his lab. I spoke with the other scientists who worked there and observed their experiments; I read papers they and others published; I learned how to perform some of the most rudimentary tasks of their basic experiments. But what I did mostly was talk to Lynch. Or, more to the point, listen as Lynch explained mammalian biology and brain science.

Listening to Lynch often entailed following swooping, exhilarating flights over time and intellectual terrain. Bear with me, he sometimes said, this might not seem connected to what we've been talking about, but it will circle back. Ten, 20 or 30 minutes later, often after side trips to ancient Rome or Yankee Stadium or Bismarck's Germany, it did.

Lynch almost always spoke in such a way that his huge ambition, self-regard and lack of pretense were vividly displayed. He was unreserved, witty, juvenile, insightful and learned in ways that were surprising. He was as apt to quote Cormac McCarthy as Gregor Mendel. He made on-the-fly references to, among many other things, left- handed relief pitchers, Moses, British naval history, the stock market, Kaiser Wilhelm II, Maxwell's equations, the ur-city of Ur, Darwin, Dylan, Kant, Chomsky, Bush, Titian, field theory, drag-racing, his father's perpetual habit of calling him -- intentionally -- by the wrong name, his career as a gas jockey at an all-night service station, Pickett's charge at Gettysburg, Caesar crossing the Rubicon, and the search for the historical Jesus.

Christine Gall, Lynch's frequent collaborator and longtime significant other, said: "Gary just has more RAM than other people. He can access lateral information that most people can't. It isn't like he has to think and remind himself. It's right there. He has access to it. To have that available to inform you, to make the next cognitive leap -- that's his strength."

That leaping ability has earned Lynch as much trouble as reward. He never shies from proclamation based on his intuitions, nor from criticizing those not privy to his insight. "That is what amazes me," he said. "People will walk in who are very sensible and intelligent biologists and tell you, 'Memory is this.' And you go, 'How in the hell could it possibly be that? I didn't think it was that when I was back at Our Lady of Fatima Grade School. I mean, I didn't think it was that when I was working at the all-night gas station. For crying out loud!' "

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