LOUISVILLE, Ky., Dec. 2, 2014
A brain scientist who helped explain how our emotions affect what we learn and remember has won the 2015 University of Louisville Grawemeyer Award for Psychology.
James McGaugh, a neurobiology and behavior research professor at University of California-Irvine, received the prize for discovering that stress hormones play a key role in determining why we remember some things more vividly than others.
Hormones such as epinephrine and cortisol activate the brain’s emotional center, the amygdala, which in turn regulates other brain areas that process and consolidate memories – a sequence that explains why our emotional experiences are easier to recall, he found.
“His work has transformed the field,” said award director Woody Petry. “It has profound implications for helping us understand and treat memory disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder.”
McGaugh began studying emotion and memory in the 1960s when he found that giving animals stimulants immediately after training helped them remember their exercises. Later, he learned that naturally occurring stress hormones had a similar memory-enhancing effect.
Recently, he has studied people with highly superior autobiographical memory to see if differences in their brain structure may account for the trait.
McGaugh joined UC-Irvine in 1964. Besides founding and directing its Center for the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory, he also served as executive vice chancellor, academic affairs vice chancellor, biological sciences dean and department chair. The university named McGaugh Hall on its campus after him in 2001.
He held posts in the psychology departments at University of Oregon and San Jose State University after earning his doctorate in physiological psychology at University of California-Berkeley and his bachelor’s degree at San Jose State.
His work has been featured on CBS’s “60 Minutes,” described in dozens of textbooks and cited in more than 15,000 academic papers.
This year’s award is $100,000 each.