Richard F. Thompson — a world-leading behavioral neuroscientist who has spent nearly a half-century researching the physical basis of memory — has won the American Psychological Foundation's 2010 Gold Medal Award for Life Achievement in the Science of Psychology.
The foundation gives only one such award in the sciences each year. The honor recognizes a distinguished career and enduring contribution to the science of psychology.
“It’s a great honor,” said Thompson, holder of the William M. Keck Chair in Psychology and Biological Sciences in USC College. “I’ll be 80 this year, so I’m not sure how much more research I’ll be doing. Right now, we’re wrapping up a major project going on for 30 years, indentifying the places in the brain where memories are stored for particular forms of classical conditioning.”
Thompson, professor of psychology and biological sciences, studies how humans learn and remember. In 2002, he was the first to identify and map neural circuits involved in classical conditioning, made famous by Russian psychologist Ivan Pavlov. More than a century ago, Pavlov’s classical conditioning theory showed that animals can be taught to anticipate an award. Thompson tracked the memory traces that underlie Pavolvian conditioning to a tiny, specific part of the brain.
Neuroscientists had been surprised to learn that the cerebellum, a dense ball of nerve cells at the bottom-rear of the brain, might play a role in learning and cognition. Prior to Thompson’s breakthrough research, the cerebellum had been considered a motor region — an orchestrator of voluntary, coordinated body movements.
Thompson has written a half-dozen books, edited several others and published 450 research papers to date. He wrote his first book, Foundations of Physiological Psychology (Harper & Row), in 1967 while a professor of medical psychology and psychiatry at the University of Oregon Medical School. The book has since become a classic in the field.
His textbook, The Brain: A Neuroscience Primer (Third Edition, Worth Publishers, 2000), presents an overview of brain anatomy and physiology — from molecules to the mind. The third edition includes developments in cognitive neuroscience, with expanded, illustrated coverage of imaging work, as well as additional research on ageing and Alzheimer's disease. Thompson says that learning more about the mechanism of estrogen enhancement of long-term potentiation — a long-lasting increase in neuronal response occurring in the hippocampus, a major structure in the forebrain — could lead to treatments for Alzheimer’s.
Most recently he wrote Memory: The Key to Consciousness (Joseph Henry Press, 2005) with longtime colleague Stephen A. Madigan, associate professor of psychology in the College. Focusing on cutting-edge research in behavioral science and neuroscience, Memory explores the mechanism of memory and learning. During the past two decades, memory research has accelerated with an explosion of new knowledge about the brain. Among other subjects, the book takes a look at procedures for eliciting valid recollections in legal settings, and the diagnosis and treatments of memory disorders.
Thompson is a true pioneer in the field of neuroscience. In 1952, when Thompson graduated from Reed College in Portland, Ore., where he grew up, neuroscience did not yet exist as a discipline. The field was then called physiological psychology.
“In those days in order to become a neuroscientist you had to master both psychology and physiology,” Thompson said. “Now days, we have neuroscience Ph.D. programs with it all put together and unified.”
For his senior thesis at Reed, Thompson tested one of the hypotheses of famous American psychologist and behaviorist Karl Lashley.
“I decided to study the field after reading Lashley’s books,” Thompson said.
Earning his M.S. and Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, he became a professor of psychology at Harvard University, holding a chair that had been last occupied by Lashley. He went on to chair the human biology program at Stanford University and in 1987 arrived at USC College, where he developed the neuroscience research program. Nine years later, he and William McClure, professor of biological sciences in the College, created the Ph.D. program in neuroscience.
In 2007, Lashley again emerged in his life. Thompson received the Karl Spencer Lashley Award from the American Philosophical Society, one of the most prestigious prizes in behavior neuroscience.
Thompson holds other honors, including a seat on the 24-member National Science Board and membership in the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, as well as the American Philosophical Society.
For this most recent lifetime award, Thompson also thanked his wife, Judith.
A neuroscience research associate in the College, Judith Thompson’s office is next door to Richard’s. They met at the University of Oregon Medical School, where they were both working in the psychiatry department. Judith Thompson is also a celebrated neuroscientist. In 1999, she won the D. G. Marcus award from the American Psychological Association for her paper on plasticity in a cerebellar circuit, published in Behavioral Neuroscience (1998, 112, 267‑285).
“None of this would be possible without my wife Judith,” Thompson said of his lifetime achievement award. The couple celebrates their 50th anniversary this year.