Randy Buckner tries to predict what you will remember. The newly tenured professor of psychology and his Harvard colleagues have been able to anticipate which words students will remember and have also been able to improve the memories of older people.
Buckner, a 35-year-old neuroscientist, is one of the inventors of a brain-imaging method that can trace the formation of pathways to memory. “With this method, we can pull out signals of brain activity that signal what will be remembered,” he says.
“Randy’s current work on memory and aging is probably the best in the field, and it continues to grow in exciting new ways,” says Stephen Kosslyn, chair of the Department of Psychology at Harvard. “His recent efforts promise fundamental discoveries about why people differ in their cognitive abilities. In addition, he is an extraordinarily nice guy.”
When people use different parts of their brains, blood flow to those areas increases. Tracking that flow provides a way to see what’s happening in a brain, specifically when a memory is forming. However, there’s a technical problem: The response is sluggish.
“A memory-forming event may take a second or less,” Buckner explains. “Blood flow responses do not occur until the activity is finished, which takes, maybe, 14-16 seconds. That makes it extremely difficult to measure brief brain events.”
Buckner helped to solve this problem along with his colleagues at the Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging at Massachusetts General Hospital, an affiliate of Harvard Medical School. When magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) tracks brain activity, the images pile up in a computer in a straightforward way, something like a stack of photographs or playing cards. Buckner pioneered a way to unstack the photos and look back one image at a time.
Such looks reveal that memories form when we pay attention to specific things and elaborate on them. For example, comparing a new face to one you know, or using a word you want to recall in a sentence. “Students should know this,” Buckner notes. “Elaboration is a very useful method for studying.”
Buckner also has participated in experiments wherein researchers helped older people find strategies for remembering. “The results show that memory can be improved in this way,” he says. “But the work was done in a laboratory under very specific conditions. It’s not yet clear if the same memory aides will be helpful in everyday situations.” He and a lot of other researchers are working to find the answer.
No hoops but lots of memories
Growing up, Buckner never thought he’d be doing this kind of work. “In high school, my main interest was basketball,” he recalls. “When I chose a college, I picked the academically best school where I could play the game.” That turned out to be Washington University in St. Louis.
“After the first year of Division 3 basketball, I realized that my skills lay elsewhere,” he admits. “Still, ‘Wash U.’ was good for me – I became interested in memory and learned how to use brain imaging as a way to study it.” After eight years of study and research, Buckner earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience from the Washington University School of Medicine in 1996.
A postdoctoral fellowship then brought him to Harvard Medical School, where he did research with Daniel Schacter, now Kenan Professor of Psychology. Schacter remembers Buckner as “one of the most energetic and imaginative researchers I have ever known. Randy is very enthusiastic about what he does, and this helps to make him a standout teacher as well as a terrific scientist. Both his students and colleagues will benefit greatly from that. He is also an exceptionally congenial person who is well liked by anyone who knows him.”
Schacter and Buckner will teach a course on memory together next fall. “I look forward to that,” Buckner comments. “Harvard students are truly remarkable. It’s clear that you are interacting with our future leaders.”
The course will explore the everyday function of memory and the brain activity that this involves. “We often test memory in the laboratory by asking people to muse about the past,” Buckner notes. “What they recall is likely to aid decision making and their predictions of what will happen next.”
Buckner has personal reasons for discovering all that he can about the memory loss that accompanies aging and Alzheimer’s. “It is a disease that has affected several members of my family,” he says. “For this reason I shifted a portion of my research program about six years ago. Since then I, and others, have made some progress in this area. It has been personally gratifying to work on something so relevant to my family.”
This research has produced modest success in getting older people to realize they have natural strategies they can use to boost their memories. However, Alzheimer’s can affect the brain in ways that make such strategies unavailable to those with the disease. Buckner is trying to find out what goes wrong before memory problems begin.
One major reason for doing this kind of exploration at Harvard is the new Center for Brain Research being built on the Cambridge campus. It will house the latest in brain-scanning technology and include colleagues interested in every aspect of research from the activity of single cerebral cells to human behavior.
When not researching or teaching, Buckner has taken up cycling. “I’m looking forward to discovering the roads and trails of Massachusetts,” he says. He has not put up a basketball hoop outside his house.