LOUISVILLE, Ky. — 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.
University of California-Irvine neurobiology and behavior research professor James McGaugh received the prize for discovering that stress hormones such as epinephrine and cortisol play a critical part in determining why we remember some things more vividly than others.
The hormones 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 the link between emotion and memory in the 1960s, when he learned that giving stimulants to animals 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 founded UC-Irvine’s neurobiology and behavior department and its Center for the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory.
Five Grawemeyer Award winners are being named this week. The university presents the prizes annually for outstanding works in music composition, ideas improving world order, psychology and education and gives a religion prize jointly with Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. This year’s awards are $100,000 each.