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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

"He never really hurt anybody physically but himself. Although there were people with emotional scars, I can tell you," said John Larson, now of the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Lynch said: "That lab was a strange, strange place. A lot of weird, weird, different kinds of people. The dean would look at it and say, 'That's a strange damn place.' I'd answer: 'Have you looked at me?' "

Amy Arai, a native of Japan, recalled the culture shock she felt when she joined the lab in the 1980s. "In Japan, everything is very formal. Scientists wear jackets and ties to work every day. Here in Irvine, nobody did that," she said. "I had a hard time even locating Gary. . . . I wandered around looking for him. There were lots of people wandering around, including one particularly scruffy guy I saw in the hallways, shirt always untucked and dirty. I'd sort of hold my breath when I passed him in the hall. I thought he was a janitor."

One day, weeks after arriving, Arai was summoned to Lynch's office, which was removed from the rest of the faculty offices in a double-wide trailer next to a parking lot. Arai walked in and found the trailer empty except for the "janitor," who was sitting behind a desk smoking a cigar. It was Lynch.

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."

Baudry, a Frenchman, toured labs in the United States for five weeks in 1978, then went back to Paris and told his professors he was going to join Lynch. Baudry recalled the reaction of Jean-Pierre Changeux, the rising star of French neuroscience: "He looked at me. He said, 'You're crazy. Gary Lynch? The hippie of neurobiology?' I said, 'I'll take my chance.' I went to Gary's lab, and it really was something different in its ambience. All these wild people. The contrast with Paris -- fields, cows around the campus. I thought, I have to give this a shot. It really was the Wild West. And Gary really was this wild person."

Lynch still draws an off-kilter collection of researchers. His latest lab -- the "girl lab," as he described it -- included a grad student who wasn't officially assigned to the lab, a postdoc who ended up there by virtue of being kicked out of her original department, and a preternaturally talented undergrad who was hanging out only long enough to decide which med-school scholarship to accept. The senior scientists, except for one man who never left his private office, were three women, who seemed to speak with one another as seldom as possible.

Work was assigned largely by Lynch's judgment of who could do what. If an undergrad was able, he would find himself in the middle of crucial experiments.

The lab has changed locations and varied in size over time -- anywhere from three dozen people to as few as six or seven. In January 2005, there were around a dozen regular members, with students floating in and out.

Much of the work was some variation of two basic LTP experiments. One involved isolating single neurons, which, using high-powered microscopes, were identified, then pinched with a clamp to hold them in place. This was exceptionally tedious. Researchers could go entire days without successfully clamping a single cell.

The other experiment entailed placing a thin slice of a rat's hippocampus in a nutrient bath in which it stayed alive for hours, then imposing one of a variety of conditions on the slice -- usually, infusing it with chemicals known to inhibit or incite certain molecular reactions -- then stimulating the slice with a precisely timed, placed and quantified electric impulse and measuring what happened to that impulse.

What the scientists were trying to find out by blocking or inviting the action of certain molecules was what role they played in LTP. Theoretically, you could determine all of the principal agents by this process of elimination.

In practice, people spent extraordinary amounts of time -- hours at a sitting, days or weeks in succession -- staring at graphical renderings of the results on computer screens. It was not work filled with obvious drama or even, except for making the occasional note in a lab journal, movement. The lab was quiet -- no music; no telephones; low conversations, when there were any at all.

Lynch lived in dread of being scooped on discoveries. The residents of the lab did not gush in praise of his patience. He strode among the benches several times a day to see how much progress was -- or, more usually, was not -- being made.

Lynch talked often about hating the day-to-day process of science, the actual experiments. He could hardly bear to wait for them to be done to prove what he suspected to be true.

One day, explaining his distaste, Lynch said, "There is so damned much housekeeping. The problem is, biology is a very horizontal science. You have this result over here, that one over there. None of it lines up."

His lack of enthusiasm for working on the bench meant that he needed others who were both capable and willing to do it. No wonder he was unhappy about the rash of holiday vacations.

'Shadow land'

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