i2eye with Bruce McNaughton

i2eye with Bruce McNaughton

Canada's $20 million man on how neuroscience is unlocking the mysteries of memory and the aging brain
September 16, 2009

One of the world’s foremost neuroscientists, Bruce McNaughton is renowned for his groundbreaking research into how the human brain stores, processes and transmits information. One year ago, the Ottawa-born McNaughton was lured back to Canada after spending more than a quarter century in the United States, most of that time at the University of Arizona. McNaughton is now based at the University of Lethbridge, in Alberta, home to the Canadian Centre for Behavioural Neuroscience (CCBN), one of the country’s premier brain institutes.

This much-touted “brain gain” was the result of the richest research award of its kind in Canada: a 10-year $10 million Polaris Award from the Alberta Heritage Foundation for Medical Research that will ultimately result in $20 million through matching funding. McNaughton has spent the past year assembling a team of international scientists who will help to advance research that’s of potential benefit to Alzheimer’s patients and stroke victims as well as anyone suffering from age-related memory loss.

InnovationCanada.ca (IC): Since returning to Canada, you’ve been marketed as “the $20 million man.” How do you feel about that?

Bruce McNaughton (BM): At first, it made me feel a little ill. But as I thought about it, I saw some positive aspects. It shows young people you can be successful in science and there’s the possibility of recognition. There are $20 million singers and baseball players. Why not a $20 million neuroscientist?

IC: Why did you originally leave Canada?

BM: The short answer is that the opportunities were better.

IC: So why did you return?

BM: The long-term guaranteed funding from the Polaris Award was certainly a big part of it. So many grants have only a two-to-three-year life cycle, making it difficult to build and sustain the critical mass of expertise needed to advance research. But it was also because there was already a dedicated and growing neuroscience group here at CCBN and people with whom I knew I could work.

IC: Are you concerned that the “brain gain” your return was supposed to represent is in danger of being stalled because of the recession?

BM: Everything is going to be stalled for a little while. But since last September, we’ve used the Polaris funding to recruit four outstanding junior faculty members from the United States, Japan and Europe. So it’s really paid off. There are five of us who wouldn’t have been here previously.

IC: But can Canada really compete for the best and the brightest?

BM: We’ve got some advantages, especially in the field of neuroscience research, where Canadians are known for making some unique and historic discoveries, including work on neural stem cells. But a pet peeve of mine is that we don’t make it attractive enough for foreign students. They pay an extra penalty in terms of huge tuition fees. So it’s harder for us than it is, say, in the United States, where they offer tuition waivers. If the goal is to attract the brain talent that’s going to be the foundation of our science and education systems over the next 30 years, then we need to do more to bring in people at that level and keep them here.

IC: Your research is widely credited with helping to reveal how the brain acquires knowledge and builds memories — and how that process often deteriorates with age. What’s the most fundamental breakthrough you’ve made?

BM: If I can take credit for anything, it’s helping develop technologies that provide a window into how the brain creates its own reality — its own internal map of the world. The key to this was finding methods to record simultaneously from many, many cells in the brain, because recording from just one or two neurons at a time doesn’t allow you to decode what’s being processed through the collective activity of hundreds and hundreds of brain cells.

IC: Why is it that as we age, many of us experience memory lapses or find it harder to incorporate new knowledge or skills, such as learning to play a musical instrument or acquiring a new language?

BM: We now know, partly as a result of the work I’ve been involved in, that the brain’s mechanism for changing synaptic strength is altered during aging, and changing synaptic strength is the way memory is laid down. So we have learned, at the physiological level, that in the aged brain, there are specific changes in how synapses are modified by experience, and there’s now been clinical testing of some drugs that have been shown to at least ameliorate those changes.

IC: But is this normal deterioration in memory as we age something we really need to cure?

BM: That’s a very good question. There is a limit to how much knowledge can be contained within a brain of a certain size, and by the time we are 30, we have probably acquired all of the most important aspects of the knowledge we need to survive. So one view is that the gradual deterioration of our ability to store new information is a way of optimizing the synaptic knowledge structure that has been worked out earlier in life. I think there’s some truth to that. But it’s also true that some of the knowledge we acquire prior to age 30 becomes obsolete — and there are newer things we need to know, in terms of technological changes and the like, to be functional human beings past age 50.

IC: What’s the best thing about being back in Canada?

BM: The snow. I loved Arizona. It’s a certain kind of paradise. But I like to cross-country ski and the change of seasons. I missed all that.