By Angela Grant
CMB guest writer
Recent movies such as 50 First Dates and Memento portray people who lack the ability to form new memories, and must comically remember the previous day using photographs or self-directed home videos.
In reality, damage to the hippocampus, the area of the brain responsible for memory formation and temporary memory storage, can permanently prevent a person from living a normal life.
“Learning and memory, basically, if you think about it, are the essence of who we are,” said Daniel Johnston, an UT neurobiology professor.
Perhaps this is why Johnston, who recently moved here from the Baylor College of Medicine, has devoted 25 years of his life to the study of learning and memory. His move to Austin continues that career, as he will serve as director of UT’s brand new Center for Learning and Memory and the Institute for Neuroscience.
Johnston’s research delves into the physiology of single neurons, or brain cells, in the hippocampus. He seeks to understand how the hippocampus forms memories, stores them for about one year, and transfers them to the cortex, the area of the brain responsible for long-term memory storage.
“If we better understood the basic neurobiology of learning and memory, we might have better insight into improving the decline in memory,” he said. Memory decline can occur during normal aging processes, or due to developmental problems such as mental retardation.
The Center for Learning and Memory provides an opportunity to jumpstart scientific insight into this critical thought process. Johnston is currently focused on recruiting 10 faculty members, who will eventually conduct research on some aspect of the neurobiology of learning and memory.
The center will enable the University to offer additional courses for students, such as “foundations in cellular neurophysiology,” which Johnston will teach in the fall. In addition, postdoctoral fellows, graduate students and undergraduate students will have opportunities to perform research in the labs of the center’s faculty members.
“Ultimately my goals are for The Center for Learning and Memory to be considered one of the premier research centers and the Institute for Neuroscience one of the top graduate programs in the country,” Johnston said.
The goal may be easier to obtain due to Johnston’s own reputation as a researcher.
“He’s considered one of the leaders in the field,” said Barbara Ehrlich, a pharmacology professor at Yale University who conducts research on neurons, similar to Johnston’s research.
She said Johnston is a “rigorous” researcher who considers all aspects of his topic and doesn’t leave relevant questions unanswered.
“He asks the questions in a unique way that makes it maximize effectiveness,” Ehrlich said.
Researchers in the lab Johnston supervises are currently asking questions about dendrites, which are branching extensions of neurons that carry electrical signals into the cell. Johnston rarely gets the chance to conduct research himself due to his administrative obligations, he said.
The researchers in his lab generally study cells from mice with altered genes. For example, one mouse may be altered to omit a certain protein, and another to only modify the protein. The researchers then examine the animals’ neurons to determine whether the difference changed the dendrite activity.
Scientists must fully understand how single neurons store information before they can comprehend how hundreds of thousands of neurons function to provide everyday memories, Johnston said.
His lab will eventually employ about 15 postdoctoral students, graduate students, and research technicians. Johnston said he is not a micromanager, and allows students a lot of freedom to propose projects and creatively develop them. He said he focuses on giving feedback when the students get experiment results.
“They learn from making mistakes,” he said.
Yuan Fan, who recently earned his PhD after working in Johnston’s lab at Baylor for three years, said Johnston can always be counted on to give “non sugar-coated” comments about students’ work. It can frustrate some students, Fan said, but is better in the long run.
“If you want to learn something, if you want to get some real input that will benefit you, you can go to him,” he said. Yan is moving to Austin this summer to continue work as a postdoctoral fellow in Johnston’s lab.
Johnston acknowledges he can be “pretty blunt” but said he always includes positive feedback when it’s warranted. The method seems to work pretty well.
“I have a lot of successful scientists scattered throughout the world that have trained at my lab,” Johnston said with a laugh.