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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

Although the great Spanish anatomist Santiago Ramon y Cajal proposed in the late 19th century that the brain was composed of tiny cells called neurons and that memory might be stored at connections between neurons, there were plenty of scientists who thought the whole mental apparatus too ineffable, too mysterious a subject to yield to laboratory examination.

The seminal event in the modern history of memory research occurred by accident in 1953. In an effort to stop horrific epileptic seizures afflicting a young Connecticut man, a neurosurgeon named William Scoville removed a portion of the man's brain. The surgery stopped the seizures but rendered the man, known in the literature as H.M., incapable of forming new memories. His memory of events before the surgery was uninhibited.

A main portion of the brain that Scoville removed was a temporal lobe structure called the hippocampus. The fact that H.M. could no longer form memories but could recall older ones suggested strongly that the hippocampus was crucial to making but not storing memory. It immediately made the hippocampus the central focus of memory research, a position it had maintained when Lynch, just 26, arrived in Irvine in 1969.

Lynch was wild-eyed, bushy-haired and bearded, a man of his time -- a bit too fully, perhaps. It was the '60s, it was Southern California, land of eternal light and endless good times. Lynch lived in a party pad on Balboa Island.

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."

By every account, including his own, Lynch ate badly, drank heavily and slept hardly at all. There were days he seemed to consume more cigars than calories.

"Gary doesn't sleep," said Michel Baudry, a 10-year veteran of Lynch's lab. "He's incredible. I don't know how he survives."

Another researcher, Kevin Lee, recalled that for a period in the 1970s, the only things he ever saw Lynch eat came out of a vending machine, a single vending machine. His main meal consisted of salted peanuts mixed into soft drinks.

"You know, Gar," Lee recalled telling him, "you might think about diversifying your diet. Nothing radical, but hey, man, try a new machine. Have some chips."

Lynch's diet was of a piece with his extreme work habits, which typically included seven days a week of 12-hour or longer shifts in the lab, often followed by monumental bouts in the nearest bar.

Given 400 square feet of lab space and $900 to equip it, Lynch quickly made discoveries having to do with the brain's ability to repair some damage to itself after injury. It had generally been thought that the brain was static, that it did not produce new cells or structures after it reached maturity. Lynch and others began to wonder whether the brain did not possess more malleability, what was called plasticity.

In 1973, just as Lynch was expanding his investigation of brain plasticity, a pair of scientists in Europe discovered that when they stimulated the hippocampus with electric current intended to simulate brain activity, connections between hippocampal cells were strengthened and, more important, those strengthened connections could be retained indefinitely. They called the phenomenon long-term potentiation (LTP).

The combination of brief stimulation and long-lasting effect matched the key characteristics scientists had long associated with memory. Lynch and others wondered whether LTP was the biochemical process underlying memory. A global race was on to prove it. Thirty-two years later, Lynch hoped he was near the end of it.

'A strange place'

Lynch lab has been staffed over the years by a succession of visiting scientists, grad students, postdoctoral researchers, dope peddlers, English majors and whoever else was swept up in Lynch's often irresistible aura.

All of the inhabitants have been very bright, some brilliant. A number have gone on to chair university departments, to found successful companies or to publish distinguished papers, but when they were in the Lynch Lab, there wasn't much to recommend them to civil society. Any hint of future distinction was obscured by the chain-gang grind of life in the lab.

Lynch's extraordinary drive and ability to make every person feel that he or she was working on the single most important experiment in neuroscience history was the oxygen the lab lived on. Especially in the early years -- a period Lynch called "the boy lab" because of its testosterone-driven internal competitions -- the lab was a woolly place, not far removed in its culture from a Neanderthal cave. The guy with the biggest club generally got his way. Lynch, while not at all physically imposing, had a ferocious temper and never left a shadow of a doubt about his willingness to swing whatever was at hand. The history of the place was littered with battered telephones and drywall with holes suspiciously the size of baseball bats and fists.

"That's part and parcel of the fire that burns in him," said Lee, who now chairs the neuroscience department at the University of Virginia. "The phone on the wall? It just looked like a baseball sometimes."

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