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McGaugh received his B.A. from San Jose State University in 1953 and his Ph.D. in psychology from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1959. He was briefly a professor at San Jose State and then became a professor at the University of Oregon from 1961-1964. He was then recruited to the University of California, Irvine, in 1964 (the year of the school's founding) to be the founding chair of the Department of Psychobiology (now neurobiology and behavior: ). He became dean (1967-1970) of the School of Biological Sciences and eventually Vice Chancellor (1975-1977) and executive Vice Chancellor (1978-1982) of the university, though he maintained his laboratory throughout that time. In 1983, he founded the Center for the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory () and remained director from 1983-2004.
McGaugh's early work (in the 1950s and 1960s) demonstrated that memories are not instantly created in a long-term, permanent fashion. Rather, immediately after a learning event, the memory is labile and susceptible to influence. As time passes, the memory becomes increasingly resistant to external influences and eventually becomes stored in a relatively permanent manner. This process is called memory consolidation. Dr. McGaugh found that drugs, given to an animal after a learning event, influence the subsequent retention of that event. The concept of such "post-training" manipulations is one of Dr. McGaugh's greatest contributions to the field of learning and memory because it avoids many potential confounds, such as performance effects of the drug, that may occur when a drug is given prior to the training.
Over the ensuing decades, Dr. McGaugh extended his findings into a long-term investigation of emotionally-influenced memory consolidation. As most people realize, they have stronger memories for long-ago events that were emotionally arousing in nature, compared with memories for emotionally neutral events (which may not be remembered well at all). Dr. McGaugh has examined how emotional arousal influences memory consolidation. In particular, he has found that stress hormones, such as cortisol, mediate much of the effects of emotional arousal on subsequent retention of the event. These hormones, in turn, activate a variety of brain structures, including the amygdala, which appears to play a key role in modulating memory consolidation. The amygdala, when activated, influences a variety of other brain structures, such as the hippocampus and the nucleus accumbens, that process information for the memory. It is through this "orchestra" of brain structures that memories are eventually formed and stored, though the exact nature of memory storage remains elusive.
McGaugh has been recognized in honor of his achievements, accomplishments, and contributions to the field of learning and memory. He was elected a member of the National Academy of Sciences in 1989, has served as president of the American Psychological Society and the Western Psychological Association, and was elected a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Association of Arts and Sciences. In 2001, the University of California, Irvine, named a building after him, McGaugh Hall.
- McGaugh, J. L., and Herz, M. J.(1972) Memory Consolidation, Albion Publishing Company, San Francisco
- Drucker-Colin, R. R. and McGaugh, J. L.(1977) (eds.), Neurobiology of Sleep and Memory, Academic Press.
- Frederickson, R. C. A., McGaugh, J. L. and Felten, D. L.(1991) Peripheral Signaling of the Brain: Role in Neural-immune Interactions, Learning and Memory, Hogrefe & Huber, Toronto.
- Pitman, R. K. and Orr, S. P., (1995) Psychophysiology of emotional memory networks in posttraumatic stress disorder . In McGaugh, J. L., Weinberger, N. M. and Lynch, G. (eds.), Brain and Memory: Modulation and Mediation of Neuroplasticity, Oxford University Press, New York.
- McGaugh, J.L. (2003). Memory and Emotion. Weidenfield & Nicholson. ISBN 0297645935
- McGaugh, J. L., and Gold, P. E. (1976). Modulation of memory by electrical stimulation of the brain , in Rosenzweig, M. R., and Bennett, E. L. (eds.), Neural Mechanisms of Learning and Memory, The MIT Press.
- McGaugh, J. L., Ferry, B., Vazdarjanova, A. and Roozendaal, B., (2000) Amygdala: Role in modulation of memory storage , in Aggleton, J. P. (ed.), The Amygdala: A Functional Analysis, Oxford University Press, London
- McGaugh, J. L., and Petrinovich, L., (1959) The effect of strychnine sulphate on maze-learning , The American Journal of Psychology 72, 99-102
- McGaugh, J. L., Some neurochemical factors in learning, unpublished PhD thesis (1959), University of California, Berkeley.
- McGaugh, J. L. (1966). Time-dependent processes in memory storage , Science 153, 1351-58
- McGaugh, J. L. (1973). Drug facilitation of learning and memory , Annual Review of Pharmacology 13, 229-41
- McGaugh, J. L., and Herz, M. J.(1972). Memory Consolidation, Albion Publishing Company, San Francisco,
- McGaugh, J. L. (2000). Memory: a century of consolidation , Science 287, 248-51.
- McGaugh J. L(1989),., Involvement of hormonal and neuromodulatory systems in the regulation of memory storage , Annual Review of Neuroscience 12, 255-87;
- McGaugh, J. L. (1989). Dissociating learning and performance: drug and hormone enhancement of memory storage , Brain Research Bulletin 23, 339-45
- McGaugh, J. L., Castellano, C. and Brioni, J. D. (1990). Picrotoxin enhances latent extinction of conditioned fear , Behavioral Neuroscience, 104, 262-65
- Packard, M. G. and McGaugh, J. L. (1996),, 'Inactivation of hippocampus or caudate nucleus with lidocaine differentially affects expression of place and response learning', Neurobiology of Learning and Memory 65, 65-72.
- McGaugh, J. L. (2000). Memory: a century of consolidation , Science 287, 248-51.
- McGaugh, J. L. (2002). Memory consolidation and the amygdala: A systems perspective , Trends in Neurosciences 25, 456-61.
- McGaugh, J. L. and Roozendaal, B. (2002). Role of adrenal stress hormones in forming lasting memories in the brain , Current Opinion in Neurobiology 12. 205-10.
- McGaugh, J. L. (2002). Memory consolidation and the amygdala: a systems perspective , Trends in Neurosciences 25, 456-61;
- McGaugh, J. L., (2002). The amygdala regulates memory consolidation . In Squire, L. R. and Schacter, D. L. (eds.) Neuropsychology of Memory, 3rd Edition, The Guilford Press, New York.
- Cahill, L., and McGaugh, J. L. (1998). Mechanisms of emotional arousal and lasting declarative memory , Trends in Neuroscience 21 294-9
- Cahill, L., Babinsky, R., Markowitsch, H. J. and McGaugh, J. L. (1995). The amygdala and emotional memory , Nature 377 295-6.
- Cahill, L. and McGaugh, J. L. (1995). A novel demonstration of enhanced memory associated with emotional arousal , Consciousness and Cognition 4, 410-21
- Cahill, L., Prins, B., Weber, M,. and McGaugh, J. L. (1994). p-adrenergic activation and memory for emotional events , Nature 371, 702-4.
- Castellano, C., and McGaugh, J. L. (1989). Retention enhancement with posttraining picrotoxin: lack of state dependency , Behavioral and Neural Biology 51, 165-70.
- deQuervain, D. J.-F., Roozendaal, B. and McGaugh, J. L. (1998). Stress and glucocorticoids impair retrieval of long-term spatial memory , Nature 394, 787-90
- de Quervain, D. J.-F., Roozendaal, B., Nitsch, R. M., McGaugh, J. L. and Hock, C. (2000). Acute cortisone administration impairs retrieval of long-term declarative memory in healthy subjects , Nature Neuroscience 3, 313-14.
- Ferry, B. and McGaugh, J. L. (1999). Clenbuterol administration into the basolateral amygdala post-training enhances retention in an inhibitory avoidance task , Neurobiology of Learning and Memoir 72, 8-12.
- Fishbein, W., McGaugh, J. L., and Swarz, J. R(1971),., Retrograde amnesia: Electroconvulsive shock effects after termination of rapid eye movement sleep deprivation , Science 172, 80-82.
- Hamann, S.B., Cahill, L., McGaugh, J.l., Squire, L.R. (1997). Intact enhancement of declarative memory for emotional material in amnesia , Learning and Memory 4, 301-9.
- Hatfield, T., Spanis, C. and McGaugh, J. L., Response of amygdalar norepinephrine to footshock and GABAergic drugs using in vivo microdialysis and HPLC , Brain Research 835, 340-45.
- Hatfield, T. and McGaugh, J. L. (1999). Norepinephrine infused into the basolateral amygdala posttraining enhances retention in a spatial water maze task , Neurobiology of Learning and Memory 71, 232-9
- Introini-Collison, I., Saghafi, D., Novack, G. and McGaugh, J. L. (1978). Memory-enhancing effects of posttraining dipivefrin and epinephrine. Involvement of peripheral and central adrenergic receptors , Behavioral Biology 25,509-20.
- Keator, D., Wu, J. and McGaugh, J. L. (1996). Amygdala activity at encoding correlated with long-term, free recall of emotional information , Proceedings, National Academy of Sciences. USA 93, 8016-21.
- Liang, K. C., Juler, R. G. and McGaugh, J. L. (1986). Modulating effects of post-training epinephrine on memory: involvement of the amygdala noradrenergic system , Brain Research 368, 125-33.
- Liang, K. C. and McGaugh, J. L. (1983). Lesions of the stria terminalis attenuate the enhancing effect of post-training epinephrine on retention of an inhibitory avoidance response , Behavioural Brain Research 9, 49-58.
- McIntyre, C. K., Hatfield, T. and McGaugh, J. L., (2002), Amygdala norepinephrine levels after training produce inhibitory avoidance retention performance in rats , European Journal of Neuroscience 16 1223-26.
- Packard, M. G., Introini-Collison, I. and McGaugh, J. L. (1996). Stria terminalis lesions attenuate memory enhancement produced by intracaudate nucleus injections of oxotremorine , Neurobiology of Learning and Memory 65, 278-82.
- Petrinovich, L., Bradford, D. and McGaugh, J. L. (1965 ). Drug facilitation of memory in rats , Psychonomic Science 2, 191-2.
- Quirarte, G. L., *Galvez, R., Roozendaal, B. and McGaugh, J. L. (1998). Norepinephrine release in the amygdala in response to footshock and opioid peptidergic drugs , Brain Research 808, 134-40;
- Tomaz, C., Dickinson-Anson, H. and McGaugh, J. L. (1992). Basolateral amygdala lesions block diazepam-induced anterograde amnesia in an inhibitory avoidance task , Proceedings, National Academy of Sciences, USA 89, 3615-19.
- Vazdarjanova, A. and McGaugh, J. L., (1998). Basolateral amygdala is not a critical locus for memory of contextual fear conditioning , Proceedings, National Academy of Sciences, USA 95, 15003-7
- Gold, P. E. and Greenough, W. T. (2001) (eds.), Memory Consolidation: Essays in Honor of James L. McGaugh, American Psychological Association, Washington, DC.