A U.S.-based neuroscientist renowned for plumbing the depths of memory function has won a $20-million research prize - the richest award of its kind in Canada - to move to Alberta to further his work.
Bruce McNaughton, a Canadian who was lured to the United States 26 years ago by bigger pots of research funding than Canada could ever offer, will now be based at the University of Lethbridge, which is home to one of this country's premier brain institutes.
"They have been calling me the $20-million man, which I'm never going to live down with my colleagues," Dr. McNaughton said. "But it's sort of like holding up to younger scientists something that tells them there's a future and you can reach superstar status in science as well as in other fields."
Dr. McNaughton's work, most recently at the University of Arizona, has huge implications for understanding how the brain works. He has spearheaded the development of technologies that open a window into the brain for scientists to watch how cells interact to encode, store, recall and consolidate memories.
His work could go far in helping prevent or reverse age-related brain disorders linked to Alzheimer's disease and other dementias or in salvaging deteriorating memory function that coincides with the normal aging process.
His research could also be used to help explain why memory development goes off the rails early in life: in the prenatal phase, affected by such factors as a mother's drug or alcohol use; or in youngsters who suffer from learning disabilities at school.
The Alberta Heritage Foundation for Medical Research, which was set up by the provincial government, will make the formal announcement today.
The lucrative prize, dubbed the Polaris Awards after one of the brightest directional stars in the sky, was announced last year with an eye to bringing scientific "superstars" to the oil-rich province's three major postsecondary institutions - the University of Alberta, University of Calgary and University of Lethbridge.
The award became the envy of institutions across the country and was sought after by scientists. At least two more recipients will be named, but no time frame has been announced.
Each award amounts to $10-million at a rate of $1-million a year from the foundation, which will be matched by the university.
"I think people recognize that the global research environment is increasingly competitive and hard-nosed," said Gail Surkan, chairwoman of the foundation's board of trustees.
Born in Ottawa and educated in Canada, Dr. McNaughton, 60, has been at the University of Arizona since 1990. Before that, he was based at the University of Colorado.
Over the years, he has found that during sleep the brain replays memories of events that took place during waking hours many times faster than they happened in real time. He has learned that different parts of the brain store the sight, smell, sound and other sensory experiences linked to a single event.
By implanting electrodes in the brains of rats, Dr. McNaughton has recorded the activity of nerve cells of the animals and discovered that patterns of neural activity that lit up when the rats went through a maze were repeated during REM (rapid eye movement) sleep.
He has also found that nerve cells in the hippocampus (the part of the brain important in forming memories) of mice fire off electrical signals in particular ways when the animal enters a new environment, suggesting the brain constructs a map in which different groups of cells work at remembering different things.
Rob Sutherland, a neuroscientist at the University of Lethbridge, said the prize will step up research and training at the Canadian Centre for Behavioural Neuroscience, where Dr. McNaughton will be based.
"He had an incredibly successful career in the U.S. and I think he was very anxious to come back to Canada, but a world-renowned scientist doesn't always find it very easy to come back to Canada," Dr. Sutherland said. "They imagine they are going to be giving up a lot."
But when Dr. McNaughton heard about the award last year, he saw how it could help build a team of experts and propel science forward.
"It was an offer I couldn't refuse," he said. "I doubt there's another award of this nature available currently anywhere in North America."