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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

One result of this perhaps excessive straightforwardness has been a constant war with the neuroscience establishment, with university administrators and colleagues at Irvine. But whatever his difficulties, Lynch has slogged along, making hard progress documented in more than 550 published papers, some of which are considered classic and are among the most frequently cited works in all of neuroscience.

As a corollary to his basic research, Lynch has sought ways to counter the various afflictions that erode the brain's abilities. Working with chemist Gary Rogers, he invented a new class of drugs called ampakines, which, if they worked, would not only improve memory, but would make the brain perform better in numerous other ways. Drugs of this sort, called cognitive enhancers or, more simply, smart pills, have been the Holy Grail of brain research for a century.

Like much contemporary drug research, ampakine development has been slow going, but by the time I met Lynch, versions of his drugs were being considered by the Food and Drug Administration for a series of clinical trials, which should largely determine whether their substantial promise could be fulfilled. Success would be a signal moment in neuroscience history.

By chance, the ampakine drug trials would get underway at the same time the memory research in his lab seemed headed toward its own finale. Lynch had a sense that answers he had spent a career chasing were at hand.

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."

He was alternately eager at the opportunity and despondent at the likelihood of failure. He knew, as every research scientist does, that almost everything almost always goes wrong. If, over time, science can be viewed as the steady extinction of ignorance, in the near term, on most days, ignorance wins hands down.

"If you're good, if you're any good at all, you put yourself in a situation where reality could come around and -- WHACK! -- knock you down. That's what you really are afraid of. If you don't have that, you're not playing science," Lynch said.

He was definitely playing science now. With the drug research and the fast-approaching end to his torturous journey in what he once characterized as a gulag of unyielding biology, he had a rare opportunity -- a shot on goal, he called it.

"Come to the lab," he said. "This could get interesting."

Lynch Lab

Save for lynch, Lynch Lab was empty just before New Year's 2005. Much to Lynch's chagrin, everyone was vacationing.

The lab had just developed a new technique that he thought would allow researchers to visualize the physical trace of memories, and in doing so resolve long-standing, fundamental debates in neuroscience.

This new technique promised to answer conclusively what had been supposition, and to answer it in such a way that you would literally see the result. And people went on vacation?

Most of the space in Lynch Lab was taken up by two parallel ranks of standard lab benches, complete with faucets, hoses, beakers, stocks of chemicals, pipettes, scales, reference books and undergraduates. Lynch and the lab's senior scientists had offices on the perimeter, but most of the experimental work was done out on the benches.

Lynch could almost always be found in his office, writing or reading, and chewing on a cigar if he had one or a plastic cafeteria fork if he didn't. No matter whose name was on them, almost all of the journal papers that issued from the lab were written by him.

He has an open, almost guileless face, so helplessly expressive that your first impulse is to invite him to a poker game. The years have begun to accumulate, however, cutting deep lines. He is about 6 feet tall, rail-thin but for the beginnings of a belly, with tangled, graying hair that has relaxed considerably from its Charlie Manson heyday. He usually dresses in high-quality, untucked, casual clothes -- Klein, Boss and Zegna shirts and jeans and well-worn chukka boots.

His corner office is spare and clean -- a large glass-top, metal-frame desk; a dual-monitor Mac workstation; a few potted plants along broad, undraped windows. He has a telephone on his desk, but it is often unplugged. He sometimes goes for weeks without reading e-mail. The only decorations on the walls are a single small plaque honoring him because his papers were so often cited by other scientists, and a pair of large abstract paintings of brain interiors, which are mostly purple and surprisingly pleasant.

Except for a congregation of Starbucks decaf cups, he is fastidious. There is almost never more than a single pen and a pad of paper on the desktop; he keeps a spray bottle of glass cleaner handy to scrub it, which he does religiously. He usually has a bottle of whiskey and a brace of glasses stowed among the plants. Before serving, he scrubs the glasses with the same care he applies to the desk.

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