Director

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Michael A. Yassa, Ph.D.

Associate Professor and Chancellor’s Fellow
Department of Neurobiology and Behavior
Francisco J. Ayala School of Biological Sciences

Department of Neurology
Department of Psychiatry and Human Behavior
School of Medicine

Director
Center for the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory

Investigator
UC Institute for Memory Impairments and Neurological Disorders

Research Professor
University of Tsukuba, Ibaraki, Japan

Phone: (949) 824-1687
Email: myassa@uci.edu
Office: 213 QRL

Research Interests

My laboratory is interested in how the brain learns and remembers information, and how learning and memory mechanisms are altered in aging and neuropsychiatric disease. The central questions in our research are:

  1. What are the neural mechanisms that support learning and memory?
  2. How are memory circuits and pathways altered in the course of aging, dementia, and neuropsychiatric disorders such as depression and anxiety?
  3. How can we identify early preclinical biomarkers that can distinguish between normal and pathological neurocognitive changes so that we can better design diagnostic and therapeutic tools.

To address these questions, we develop and refine cognitive assessment tools that specifically target memory processes and computations, such as pattern separation. We also develop, optimize, and use a host of advanced brain measurement techniques including high-resolution structural, functional, and diffusion MRI, PET, EEG, and intracranial recordings (ECoG) in patients, to explore the brain’s architecture at very fine levels of detail.

We combine these approaches with more traditional psychophysics including measurements of galvanic skin response (skin conductance), heart rate variability, and eye tracking. We are also working with collaborators to develop novel platforms for cellular resolution functional imaging in awake, behaving animals using novel MRI tracers. Finally, we are actively developing and testing several pharmacological and nonpharmacological cognitive enhancement interventions in older adults at risk for dementia, including studies of physical exercise.

Courses

Winter:

  • BIO SCI N137 – Human Neuropsychology (Undergraduate) – A survey of human brain disorders using a clinical case study approach to illustrate fundamental issues in studying brain and behavior. Topics include sensory deficits, attentional neglect, amnesia, cortical organization, clinical psychopathology, and more. Cross listed as PSY BEH 163C and PSYCH 162N.
  • NEUROBIO 240 – Advanced Analysis in Learning and Memory (Graduate) – This seminar reviews and discusses selected early as well as current studies concerning an advanced topic in investigations of learning and memory. The topic changes from year to year. In Winter 20216, the topic was The Search for the Engram. In Winter 2015, the topic was Emotion, Arousal, and Memory. The topic for Winter 2017 is to TBD.

Spring:

  • BIO SCI 37 – Brain Dysfunction and Repair (Undergraduate) – Introduction to the disruptions in brain function that underlie disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinsonism, schizophrenia, and depression, and the basis for drug therapies. The brain’s ability to repair itself after damage and the pros and cons of that repair.
  • BIO SCI H195 (HONORS) – Imaging from Molecules to Mind (Undergraduate) – This honors course delves into three families of approaches to brain imaging that span from the level of molecular imaging (e.g. calcium imaging) to imaging of whole cell populations (e.g. two photon functional imaging), to whole brain in vivo imaging (e.g. magnetic resonance imaging). Focus is on how these tools and techniques can allow for a deeper understanding of the nervous system and allow for integration across species and modalities. This is a discussion-heavy course and students are expected to read and discuss primary literature in class, as well as propose individual projects using one or more of the techniques discussed in class. Grades are based on attendance, discussion, presentations, and final project.

Teaching Philosophy:

  • Setting expectations: I clearly outline my expectations early in the quarter. I strongly believe that if students understand the subject matter and have studied well, they should be rewarded on the day of the exam.
  • Interactive lecturing: My lecture approach combines the use of media and demonstrations with real-life examples and stories that make difficult subject matter approachable and relevant. When collections of unrelated facts are presented as just that, they do not stand a chance of being remembered. When bound by a story, however, the facts are much more likely to be understood and remembered. In the classroom, my lecturing style is not unidirectional. I frequently engage in dialogue with my students and often bring new research to bear on the topics discussed. This approach keeps students engaged and focused on the lecture and fosters their critical thinking skills.
  • Digital resources: I believe that effective integration of technology into the classroom is critical. My lectures typically include videos, engaging demonstrations, and discussion topics that are likely to be enjoyed in class and later remembered. I also upload supplementary content (videos, study guides, interesting news articles) to the course website to keep motivated students engaged at all times.
  • Frequent testing: Testing has mnemonic benefits far beyond knowledge assessment. I have been inspired by the seminal work of Roediger, Paschler and others in this area. My testing approach is to quiz students at the beginning of each lecture and to emphasize frequent testing at home. Quizzes are based on previously learned material. This approach guarantees that there is always overlap across quizzes from week to week, creates a continuous learning experience, encourages students to be well prepared for class and deters them from falling behind.
  • Office hours: My office hours are always by appointment and at the student(s) request. I do not hold a regularly scheduled office hour, as this tends to be a waste of time and is only utilized the day before the exam. Instead, I prefer to hold small group or individual meetings by appointment. I am also usually available immediately after class for questions.

Click here to access the UCI Ayala School of Biological Sciences Course Catalogue

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