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Richard Thompson Wins Lashley Award

USC College memory expert joins ‘who’s who in neuroscience’ honored by American Philosophical Society.

Richard Thompson Wins Lashley Award

Richard Thompson, holder of the William M. Keck Chair in Biological Sciences in USC College and one of the leading behavioral neuroscientists in the world, will receive the 2007 Karl Spencer Lashley Award from the American Philosophical Society on Nov. 9 in Philadelphia.

The Lashley Award is one of the most prestigious prizes in behavioral neuroscience, said Michael Quick, executive vice dean for academic affairs for USC College.

“It is probably the top prize in behavioral neuroscience and one of the top two or three awards given in the entire field of understanding the brain,” Quick said. “The list of prior winners reads like a who’s who in neuroscience. People like Roger Sperry, Eric Kandel, Torsten Wiesel and David Hubel, all winners of the Nobel Prize, were recipients of the Lashley Prize.

“I can't say that I was shocked to hear that Professor Thompson won this award. Very very happy, but not surprised. Professor Thompson has spent his career identifying the neural basis of learning and memory, and for his entire career his laboratory has been at the forefront of answering this very difficult question. I can’t think of a more deserving recipient.”

Thompson already holds many 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.

Receiving the Karl Spencer Lashley Award is particularly meaningful for Thompson because the influential behavioral psychologist is a longtime hero of his. As an undergraduate at Reed College, Thompson devoted his senior thesis to testing one of Lashely’s hypotheses. When Thompson was on the faculty at Harvard University in the 70s, he held a chair that had last been occupied by Lashley.

“It’s very special for me,” Thompson said. “He was the man who started my field in the United States.”

Thompson, professor of psychology and biological sciences, has spent nearly a half century studying the physical basis of memory, specifically the memory involved in classical conditioning.

Made famous by Russian psychologist Ivan Pavlov with his salivating dog experiments, classical conditioning theory showed that animals can be taught to anticipate a reward.

In 2002, Thompson became the first to identify and map the neural circuits involved in classical conditioning.

In addition, Thompson and others have shown that the brain saves a memory by strengthening the synapses, or connections between neurons. Neurons also create new synapses during the learning process, which Thompson defines as the creation of memory.

Memory: The Key to Consciousness (Joseph Henry Press), a collaboration with longtime colleague Stephen Madigan of USC College, was published in 2005.

As the winner of the Lashley Award, Thompson will receive a hand-illuminated certificate and $20,000 honorarium.