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Michael Yassa - UC Irvine. Irvine, CA, US

Michael Yassa

Professor and Chancellor’s Fellow | UC Irvine


Michael Yassa is interested in how learning and memory mechanisms are altered in aging and neuropsychiatric disease.





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The discriminating brain | Michael Yassa | TEDxUCIrvine Speaker Michael Yassa UCI Brain Launch Event - Introduction on Nov. 21, 2019




Michael Yassa's laboratory is interested in how the brain learns and remembers information, and how learning and memory mechanisms are altered in aging and neuropsychiatric disease. The central questions in their research are:

What are the neural mechanisms that support learning and memory?
How are memory circuits and pathways altered in the course of aging, dementia, and neuropsychiatric disorders such as depression and anxiety?
How can we identify early preclinical biomarkers that can distinguish between normal and pathological neurocognitive changes so that we can better design diagnostic and therapeutic tools.

To address these questions, Yassa develops and refines cognitive assessment tools that specifically target memory processes and computations, such as pattern separation. Yassa's lab also develops, optimizes, and uses a host of advanced brain measurement techniques including high-resolution structural, functional, and diffusion MRI, PET, EEG, and intracranial recordings (ECoG) in patients, to explore the brain’s architecture at very fine levels of detail.

Yassa's lab combines these approaches with more traditional psychophysics including measurements of galvanic skin response (skin conductance), heart rate variability, and eye tracking. They are also working with collaborators to develop novel platforms for cellular resolution functional imaging in awake, behaving animals using novel MRI tracers. Finally, we are actively developing and testing several pharmacological and nonpharmacological cognitive enhancement interventions in older adults at risk for dementia, including studies of physical exercise.

Areas of Expertise (5)

Neurobiology and Behavior

Aging and Alzheimer's Disease

Memory and Disease


Neuropsychiatric Disorders

Accomplishments (4)

Ossoff Scholars Award in Cognitive Disorders Research (professional)

2011 Alzheimer’s Treatment Center, Johns Hopkins Medicine

Roger W. Russell Scholar’s Award in the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory (professional)

2010 Center for Neurobiology of Learning and Memory

Carl W. Cotman Scholar’s Award in the Neurobiology of Neurological Disorders (professional)

2010 MIND Institute, University of California, Irvine

Fine Science Tools Travel Award in Neuroscience (professional)

2010 University of California, Irvine

Education (3)

UC Irvine: PhD, Neurobiology and Behavior 2010

The Johns Hopkins University: MA, Psychological and Brain Sciences 2007

The Johns Hopkins University: BA, Neuroscience 2002

Affiliations (3)

  • American Psychological Association
  • Cognitive Neuroscience Society
  • International Neuropsychological Society

Media Appearances (9)

NIH seeks input on how structural racism affects brain research, health

The Transmitter  online


Several neuroscientists who study the effects of racism on the brain told The Transmitter they felt cautious optimism when they read the RFI. “I love that they’re asking for information and input,” says Michael Yassa, professor of neurobiology and behavior, and director of the Center for the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory at the University of California, Irvine.

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Shifting Toward Precision Care in Multiple Sclerosis Using Disease Activity Tests and Serum Biomarkers: Michael Y. Sy, MD, PhD

NeurologyLive  online


Michael Y, Sy, MD, PhD, associate professor of clinical neurology at the University of California, Irvine School of Medicine, discussed the use of a multiple sclerosis disease activity test and serum biomarkers in improving the landscape of care for patients.

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UCI Study Finds Fragrances Improve Memory

Orange County Business Journal  online


Stopping to smell the roses really does improve the health of older people, according to a study conducted by researchers at University of California, Irvine. … “The general idea is that when humans don’t get enough olfactory stimulation, the memory centers of their brains start to deteriorate,” Michael Leon, one of the study’s authors and a UCI professor of neurobiology and behavior, told the Business Journal. … “More emphasis should be placed on treating the loss of smell,” said Michael Yassa, a UCI professor who is also director of the UCI Center for the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory. The team’s study, which appeared in Frontiers of Neuroscience, has already reached the top 40 neurology papers ever published, as ranked by Altmetrics.

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Simple fragrance release boosts memory in elders

Lab+Life Scientist  online


Neuroscientists at the University of California, Irvine (UCI) have found that releasing aromas into the bedrooms of sleeping elders helps to increase cognitive capacity — a finding that appears to transform the long-known tie between smell and memory into a non-invasive technique for strengthening memory and potentially deterring dementia. … “The reality is that over the age of 60, the olfactory sense and cognition starts to fall off a cliff,” said UCI Professor Michael Leon. … “We reduced the number of scents to just seven, exposing participants to just one each time, rather than the multiple aromas used simultaneously in previous research projects,” said project scientist Cynthia Woo. … The researchers said the results from their study bear out what scientists have learned about the connection between smell and memory, [said] CNLM Director Professor [and associate dean] Michael Yassa.

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What pecans and fragrance add to health — and childhood adversity takes away

Deseret News  online


The release of fragrance for two hours nightly for six months boosts memory, according to a new study published in Frontiers in Neuroscience. Researchers from the University of California, Irvine Center for the Neurobiology of Learning & Memory provided older adults who didn’t have memory impairment but were ages 60 to 85 with diffusers and aromatic natural oils. … Folks who slept as the fragrance wafted through their bedroom got a 226% boost in cognitive performance … [and] also said they slept better. … Michael Yassa, professor and director of the center was an investigator on the study ….

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Exposure to Certain Fragrances During Sleep Dramatically Boosts Cognitive Function

ScienceAlert  tv


Researchers at the University of California, Irvine recently uncovered strong evidence that enriching the air with fragrances improves cognitive performance by strengthening a critical connection between neurological areas involving memory and decision-making. ... "The olfactory sense has the special privilege of being directly connected to the brain's memory circuits," says neurobiologist Michael Yassa [professor and associate dean, director of Center for Neurobiology of Learning and Memory]. "All the other senses are routed first through the thalamus. Everyone has experienced how powerful aromas are in evoking recollections, even from very long ago.

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Walking For Just 10 Minutes Improves Brain Performance

MSN Health  online


The neurological study was by researchers with the U.C. Irvine Center for the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory and the University of Tsukuba, located in Japan.

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Beyond Brain Fog: What the Pandemic Has Done to Our Memory

Katie Couric Media  online


Richness and diversity of experience are also just generally good for brain health, says Michael Yassa, Ph.D., a professor of neurobiology at the University of California Irvine.

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Doing This for Just 10 Minutes Daily Can Boost Your Memory, Study Says

Best Life  online


This insight could have major implications for aging populations. "The hippocampus is critical for the creation of new memories; it's one of the first regions of the brain to deteriorate as we get older—and much more severely in Alzheimer's disease," Michael Yassa, the study's co-author and UCI professor, said via Science Daily. "Improving the function of the hippocampus holds much promise for improving memory in everyday settings."

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Articles (5)

Associations between pattern separation and hippocampal subfield structure and function vary along the lifespan: A 7 T imaging study

Scientific Reports

Joost M. Riphagen, Lisa Schmiedek, Ed H. B. M. Gronenschild, Michael A. Yassa, Nikos Priovoulos, Alexander T. Sack, Frans R. J. Verhey & Heidi I. L. Jacobs

2020 Pattern separation (PS) describes the process by which the brain discriminates similar stimuli from previously encoded stimuli. This fundamental process requires the intact processing by specific subfields in the hippocampus and can be examined using mnemonic discrimination tasks. Previous studies reported different patterns for younger and older individuals between mnemonic discrimination performance and hippocampal subfield activation.

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1100 Self-Monitoring Of PVT Performance In Healthy Adults And Individuals With MDD


O Galli, N Goel, M Basner, J Detre, M Thase, Y Sheline, H Rao, D Dinges, P Gehrman

2020 Negativity bias in depression has been repeatedly demonstrated in the judgment and decision-making literature. Research investigating the impact of sleep deprivation on self-evaluation of performance in healthy or depressed populations is limited. We examined 1) whether individuals with Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) exhibit a negativity bias in subjective ratings of performance on the Psychomotor Vigilance Task (PVT) as compared with healthy adults, and 2) the impact of total sleep deprivation (TSD) on these ratings.

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Pattern Separation and Source Memory Engage Distinct Hippocampal and Neocortical Regions during Retrieval

Journal of Neuroscience

Rebecca F. Stevenson, Zachariah M. Reagh, Amanda P. Chun, Elizabeth A. Murray and Michael A. Yassa

2020 Detailed representations of past events rely on the ability to form associations between items and their contextual features (i.e., source memory), as well as the ability to distinctly represent a new event from a similar one stored in memory (i.e., pattern separation). These processes are both known to engage the hippocampus, although whether they share similar mechanisms remains unclear. It is also unknown if, and in which region(s), activity related to these processes overlaps and/or interacts.

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Down syndrome: Distribution of brain amyloid in mild cognitive impairment

Alzheimer's & Dementia: Diagnosis, Assessment & Disease Monitoring

David B Keator, Michael J Phelan, Lisa Taylor, Eric Doran, Sharon Krinsky‐McHale, Julie Price, Erin E Ballard, William C Kreisl, Christy Hom, Dana Nguyen, Margaret Pulsifer, Florence Lai, Diana H Rosas, Adam M Brickman, Nicole Schupf, Michael A Yassa, Wayne Silverman, Ira T Lott

2020 Down syndrome (DS) is associated with a higher risk of dementia. We hypothesize that amyloid beta (Aβ) in specific brain regions differentiates mild cognitive impairment in DS (MCI‐DS) and test these hypotheses using cross‐sectional and longitudinal data.

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CA1 20-40 Hz oscillatory dynamics reflect trial-specific information processing supporting nonspatial sequence memory


Sandra Gattas, Gabriel A. Elias, Michael A. Yassa, Norbert J. Fortin

2020 The hippocampus is known to play a critical role in processing information about temporal context. However, it remains unclear how hippocampal oscillations are involved, and how their functional organization is influenced by connectivity gradients. We examined local field potential activity in CA1 as rats performed a complex odor sequence memory task. We find that odor sequence processing epochs were characterized by increased power in the 4-8 Hz and 20-40 Hz range, with 20-40 Hz oscillations showing a power gradient increasing toward proximal CA1.

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