UCI – Tsukuba Collaboration Receives Press Attention for New Exercise Study Out in PNAS

A new follow-up study to previously published work, by Dr. Michael Yassa and collaborators Kazuya Suwabe, Kyeongho Byun and Professor Hideaki Soya at the University of Tsukuba, examined the effects of a ten-minute period of exercise on the connectivity in the brain using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). They found that a single bout of moderate exertion was enough to not only improve performance on memory tests, but yield a significant increase to the strength of the connectivity between the hippocampus and the cortex, two brain structures heavily implicated in creating and retrieving memories.

Although the lasting power of these enhancements remains to be investigated, these results lend a sense of optimism to the future of lifestyle treatments for memory impairments, such as Alzheimer’s Disease and other dementias.

The Translational Neurobiology Lab has received much media attention for these findings from news sources including The Guardian, Psychology Today, and MSN Health News. You can read the UC Irvine press release here and the original PNAS paper can be found here.

Moderate Exercise Immediately Improves Memory Performance

The most recent findings to emerge from the Translational Neurobiology Lab’s collaboration with Dr. Hideaki Soya and colleagues at the University of Tsukuba (Ibaraki, Japan) may bring good news to the “moderately fit” among us. Their paper published in Nature’s Scientific Reports found that higher levels of aerobic fitness are associated with an aspect of memory that allows us to create more sharply-defined memories of similar experiences, as opposed to only remembering their commonalities. Students of varying levels of aerobic fitness from the University of Tsukuba were recruited to participate in a memory test that required them to discern whether they were being presented with an image that was exactly the same as one they were shown previously. This test, known as the mnemonic discrimination task challenges a process in the brain called pattern separation, which has also been shown to be vulnerable to age-related cognitive decline. In this study, aerobic fitness level is assumed to be linked with the endurance capacity that results from high levels of physical fitness, which has been shown to improve memory and cognition. A second paper published by the UC Irvine – Tsukuba team in the journal Hippocampus suggests that a benefit to performance on this task may be attained after just ten minutes of moderate exercise. They proposed that exercise may be activating the hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for carrying out pattern separation. A possible long-term effect of moderate exercise is aerobic activity-linked “neurogenesis,” the birth of new brain cells, which increases the number of neurons available to make new connections. Future studies will be needed to assess the brain mechanisms.

Suwabe, K., Hyodo, K., Byun, K., Ochi, G., Fukuie, T., Shimizu, T., … & Soya, H. (2017). Aerobic fitness associates with mnemonic discrimination as a mediator of physical activity effects: evidence for memory flexibility in young adults. Scientific Reports, 7(1), 5140.

CNS Young Investigator Award

Congratulations to Dr. Michael Yassa and Dr. Morgan Barense (University of Toronto) for being awarded the Cognitive Neuroscience Society 2018 Young Investigator award!

The purpose of the awards is to recognize outstanding contributions by scientists early in their careers. Two awardees, one male and one female, are named by the Awards Committee, and are honored at the CNS annual meeting. Morgan Barense and Mike Yassa will give their award lectures on Monday, March 26, 2018, 1:30 –2:30 pm, Constitution Ballroom of the Sheraton Boston Hotel in Boston, MA.

You can read both of their abstracts on the YIA page of the Cognitive Neuroscience Society’s website.

Selective memory for the good things in life may signal early memory loss

By Jessie Yaros, Graduate Student in the Translational Neurobiology Laboratory

“Those were the good old days”. Chances are you’ve expressed this statement yourself, or heard a parent or grandparent share the sentiment. Nostalgia is almost second nature for us, and seems like a healthy way to reflect on the past. Who wouldn’t want to reminisce about childhood, college, or that first job, when life was wonderfully uncomplicated. Viewing life through rose-tinted glasses, however, may not be such a good thing. New research from UC Irvine suggests that this selective remembering of positive experiences can be a marker for memory loss in the elderly.

In a study that appears in the August edition of Learning and Memory, Michael Yassa, associate professor of neurobiology & behavior and neurology, and colleagues designed and employed a test that uses participants’ recall of stories with differing emotional content to identify memory deficits and decline. The findings suggest that older adults with minor memory deficits are more likely to learn and retain positive information, relative to negative or neutral information.

Participants who were administered the new test, coined the Emotional Logical Memory Test (ELMT) , listened to various stories, and immediately afterwards were asked to recite all the details they could remember. They reported the events from memory again after 20 minutes, and at a subsequent visit one week later. This allowed the neurobiologists to observe how recall varied with the emotional tone of stories as time passed.

The research was overseen by Stephanie Leal, who recently earned a doctorate at UCI, and Jessica Noche, a clinical research specialist in the Yassa lab.

“We were interested in seeing how emotional memory changes over time, so we developed a test to detect the subtle changes that occur with different types of emotional memory in older adults,” Noche said. “We specifically compared responses to positive, negative and neutral stories to learn whether emotional valence had a role in the way stories were remembered over time.”

Study participants also took a verbal learning exam to gauge general memory performance. This served to distinguish between individuals who were high performers and those who were low performers (i.e., showing subtle memory deficits). Importantly, none of them suffered from overt memory problems severe enough for a clinical diagnosis.

Analyzing the results, researchers found that low-performing older adults exhibited a large “positivity effect,” or propensity to remember positive information. However, this came at the expense of retaining neutral material. On the other hand, high-performing older adults could recall more from neutral stories at the expense of retaining positive details.

Past studies have generated contradictory results on the existence of the positivity effect in aging populations. Yassa’s research suggests that prior inconsistent detection of the emotional preference may be caused by grouping older adults together, irrespective of high and low memory performance.

It is likely that this observed preference for positive information in older adults is connected to changes in the brain associated with aging. “We suggest that this bias toward positive retention in low-performing adults may be a compensatory mechanism that masks the effects of memory loss in the elderly, although this remains speculative,” Yassa said. “It’s possible that selectively remembering positive information may be related to changes in the brain networks supporting memory, emotional valence and reward value. Future studies using brain imaging techniques will be essential in understanding the mechanisms underlying this effect.”

Since all study participants at the time of testing had no memory complaints, researchers believe that the ELMT may tap into subtle changes in emotional memory abilities prior to obvious symptoms of cognitive decline. Further work will be necessary to establish whether participants expressing the positivity effect are more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease. If so, the test could prove to be a valuable tool in the early detection of Alzheimer’s susceptibility.

Elizabeth Murray, a research specialist in Yassa’s lab at UCI, also contributed to the study, which received support from the National Institutes of Health (grants R01 MH102392, R21 AG049220 and P50 AG 16573). UCI’s Center for the Neurobiology of Learning & Memory and the Institute for Memory Impairments & Neurological Disorders also provided support.


Jessica (Jessie) Yaros received her Bachelors in Science in Cognitive Neuroscience from the University of California, San Diego. After graduating, she joined the Laboratory of Neuro Imaging (LONI) at UCLA, and later USC, to provide support in managing the Image & Data Archive (IDA) database, and dissemination of ADNI Whole Genome Sequence data. Jessie joined the Translational Neurobiology lab in 2015. Her current research explores the neural basis of the Other Race Effect- the tendency to best recognize individuals within one’s own race. She is interested in communicating science to the lay audience and appeared recently on Friends of Joe’s Big Ideas on NPR. Click here to find out more about Jessie. 

Join us at Lakeview Senior Center in Irvine!


Brain Health: Strategies for Successful Aging

When: Monday August 29, 2016
What: Public Lecture by Dr. Yassa
Where: City of Irvine | Lakeview Senior Center | 20 Lake Road Irvine, CA
Dr. Michael Yassa will discuss:
– the aging brain and changes in memory systems
– Alzheimer’s dementia
– how to differentiate between the early stages of dementia and healthy aging
– what do we know about prevention strategies that may reduce risk for dementia?
– latest data on supplementation and other dietary factors
– evidence-based physical and cognitive exercise recommendations for healthy longevity

Call (949) 724-6900 to reserve your spot!

In loving memory of Jared Roberts

On May 31st of 2016, we lost one of our lab family members. Jared Roberts, one of the most brilliant and selfless individuals we have ever known, passed away suddenly and tragically. His memory will forever be with us, and his contributions both to science and to our lives will never be forgotten. Our thoughts and prayers go out to his family and friends. Below is a copy of his obituary. Memorials were held both in Irvine and in Salt Lake City. 

To read more about Jared’s career and scientific contributions please click here.

In loving memory Jared Roberts



May 2, 1984 – May 31, 2016

On May 31st, 2016 the world lost an incredible, extraordinary soul. Jared was a cherished son, brother, grandson, nephew, cousin, uncle and friend. He was born May 2nd, 1984 to James Roberts Jr. and Treasa Riley in Salt Lake City, Utah. He graduated from Riverton High School in 2002. He explored different paths after high school starting with computer programming and technology, but ultimately discovered his passion in the field of neurobiology. He received his Associates degree in Psychology with honorable mention in 2008 from Salt Lake Community College. His continuous desire to learn led him to The University of Utah, where he received his Bachelor of Science degree in Psychology in 2012. He had found his ultimate passion. His exceptional talent had put him on the radar of two prestigious schools: Johns Hopkins University and University of California Irvine. He chose to attend Johns Hopkins but, after a couple years, he ultimately decided to follow his professor, mentor, and friend Dr. Michael Yassa to UC Irvine. There he was tirelessly working towards the completion of his PhD in Neurobiology and Behavior, which he would have completed in 2017. 

He was a brilliant scientist, a gifted mentor, and a selfless friend. He didn’t take life too seriously; his mischievous personality could always brighten the day. He always knew how to comfort anyone in need. His award winning work led to insights in how the brain works and how it is affected by Alzheimer’s disease. He had a constant desire for learning and a fascination with technology and the intricacies of how everything worked. His brilliance was beyond words.

He was always surrounded by love from his family and friends. His best friend was his sister Brittany, whom he cherished more than life. They were each other’s greatest supporters and fans. Beside work, his hobbies included rock climbing, video gaming, canyoneering, snowboarding, skiing, and LARP. 

He was loving, sweet, honest, caring, and kind. He will forever be remembered with laughter and smiles. He is survived by his grandparents; father Jim (Pat), mother Treasa (Mark); sisters Brittany and Melissa (Diego); brothers Cody (Rachel), Zack, Rhett, Chase, Colton, and Justin; uncles, aunts, nephews, nieces, and cousins. He is preceded in death by great grandparents; step-grandfather Clausen Bennett, step-grandmother Carol Rice and brother Tyson Rice.

Congratulations to Matt Tsai who was awarded the Brian Atwood Scholarship!

4Undergraduate 3rd year Matt Tsai was recently awarded the Brian Atwood Scholarship in the Ayala School of Biological Sciences at UCI. This scholarship is awarded to junior-level Biological Sciences majors who have demonstrated outstanding achievement in both scholarship and service to the UCI community.

Matt’s interested in mental health have fueled his current research in the lab which explores mental health in college undergraduates. He is a true asset to our group and to UCI.

Congratulations, Matt!

Congratulations to Stephanie Leal on successfully defending her dissertation and earning her Ph.D.

Stephanie Leal recently defended her dissertation, completing her graduate studies and earning her doctorate degree. Dr. Leal’s dissertation work, Emotional Modulation of Episodic Memory and Translational Application to Aging and Depression-Related Cognitive Impairment focuses on how emotion modulates our memory and how this modulation changes over the course of aging and depression. During her time in the lab, Stephanie has been an exemplary and meticulous graduate student and scientist, a devoted mentor and a caring friend.

Dr. Leal has accepted a position as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of California, Berkeley with Dr. William Jagust where she will investigate the effect of tau and amyloid pathology on memory consolidation in cognitively normal aging.

We will miss Stephanie in Irvine but are excited to see her advance to the next chapter.

Congratulations, Dr. Leal!


If you are interested in finding out more about Stephanie’s research, below is a list of her publications.

Join Dr. Yassa at Oasis Senior Center May 10, 2016!

Join Dr. Yassa as he discusses the aging brain and changes in memory systems, Alzheimer’s dementia, how to differentiate dementia in the early stages from healthy aging, what we know about prevention strategies that may reduce risk for dementia, latest data on supplementation and physical and cognitive exercise.

When: Tuesday May 10, 2016, 6:00PM
Where: Oasis Senior Center |801 Narcissus Avenue, Corona Del Mar CA

RSVP to this FREE event by calling (949) 644-3244 or email OASISCenter@newportbeachca.gov

Healthy Brain Aging UCI_May 2016



Congratulations to Zach Reagh – 1st place poster award recipient at UCI MIND ReMIND symposium

Dr. Josh Grill and Zach Reagh

Dr. Josh Grill,  Zach Reagh

Congratulations to our 4th year graduate student Zach Reagh for a 1st place-winning poster at UCI MIND’s ReMIND Emerging Scientists Symposium in February.

ReMIND (Research and Education in Memory Impairments and Neurological Disorders) is a student led club affiliated with UCI MIND that was created to support the next generation of young scientists studying neurological disorders. This year’s symposium was the 7th annual.

For more information about ReMIND please click here. 


Selective vulnerability of memory for objects vs. locations in older adultsReagh_ReMIND

Though general memory decline is a hallmark symptom of aging, recent studies suggest that the neural pathways supporting memory for items is more vulnerable than those supporting memory for space or context. Here, we report evidence for behavioral consequences of this selective vulnerability: compared to young adults, memory for details about objects is impaired, but spatial memory is relatively intact. Our next steps are to combine this multi-domain memory task with high-resolution brain imaging to better understand memory decline the aging brain.
Photo credit: Wes Koseki, Ayala School of Biological Sciences