Simple Critters and Big Mysteries: An Interview with Dr. Thomas J. Carew

Aplysia californica releasing a toxic cloud in self-defense. Photo: Genny Anderson.

The excitement exhibited by Thomas J. Carew while talking about neuroscience is similar to that of a child discussing a favorite activity, as he seems to be thoroughly elated with his current position. “In a single day, I get to talk to a poet, a physicist and a Chinese historian,” cheerfully states Carew, in his role as the dean of the Faculty of Arts and Science at New York University. “That is an intellectual feast I truly enjoy.” It’s difficult not to get infected with his enthusiasm.

Possessing a strong affinity for solving mysteries from an early age, he gravitated toward science in his academic pursuits. After obtaining his B.A. from Loyola University and M.A. from California State College, he enrolled in the University of California at Riverside, where he earned his Ph.D. Carew’s research primarily focuses on the behavioral, cellular, and molecular analyses of learning and memory. He is considered to be one of the most distinguished and proficient scientists in the field.

His many accomplishments include an honorary M.A. and the Dylan Hixon Prize for Excellence in Teaching in the Natural Sciences from Yale University, a merit award and Career Development Award issued by the National Institute of Mental Health, and a stint as President of the Society for Neuroscience in 2008, to name a few. He is also a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Brain World had the pleasure of interviewing Carew for this issue.

Brain World: Can you talk about your educational background?

Thomas J. Carew: Sure. I am happy to give you my academic trajectory. After I got my degrees in California, I joined the faculty at NYU as a post-doctoral fellow. Specifically, I joined the laboratory of Eric R. Kandel, who went on to win the Noble Prize in 2000. He was an extraordinary force in my personal and professional life and was essentially the one who instilled (in me) my passion for science, taught me standards and to go the extra mile — not just settle for a finding but really chase it down until I understand it and its broader implications. So, those formative years were pivotal for me.

Then, [the Kandel group] moved from NYU to Columbia Medical School. I was there from 1974 to 1983. One of the things I began to miss while at Columbia was the university setting — I truly love teaching, and I truly love undergraduates. And so I joined the faculty at Yale in 1983 until 2000. I was then invited to become the Bren Professor and chair of the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior at the University of California in Irvine, where I spent the next decade or so. In 2011, I was invited to come to NYU as dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. I was surprised that I actually considered this post because I was extremely happy and loved UC Irvine, but a chance to become involved on a broader level at a university was an exciting one!

BW: How did you develop an interest in neuroscience?

TJC: As I developed intellectually in university, I was taken by biology in general — there wasn’t a field called “neuroscience” at that time. I loved tinkering with the building blocks of life, how molecules assembled into things that made us work as human beings. In parallel, I got interested in psychology, learning, and memory. So, throughout university I combined those two interests.

BW: How did you balance fatherhood, being a husband, and studying for the various degrees that you have?

TJC: You know, it’s funny that you ask — it wasn’t a problem. I was busy, but I liked the action. Having literally grown up with my wife (married for 50 years), we had to be efficient. There wasn’t a whole lot of extra time to be engaged in things other than our main pursuits of kids and college, but I loved every minute of it. To this day, I am amazed I’m able to do what I do. I don’t remember a time when I haven’t felt privileged to have my job.

BW: You studied the neural basis of various forms of memory using Aplysia [marine mollusks, also known as large sea slugs]. Was that because of the simplicity of its nervous system?

TJC: Exactly so. I’ve worked on this simple critter from the time I joined Eric Kandel’s lab in 1970 to the present. From the very beginning, I was deeply interested in how our brains encode information, store that information and allow us to pull that information out at a later time. Since I have been in the field, that has been the deep theme of all of my work.

Aplysia offers some real strength to pursuing these questions on a cellular and molecular level. Its behavior is modest compared to mammalian systems like rats and mice and certainly primates. And when we trade off the complexity of behavior in this organism, it gives us leverage to explore the mechanisms of learning and memory in molecular detail. So, we can move from studying behavior to synaptic changes to molecular changes, all around the same form of learning on a daily basis.

The kind of learning we study is a type of primitive fear conditioning. Essentially, we study the change in behavior when an animal encounters a threatening stimulus. We deliver a modest shock to the animal’s tail that sort of tells it, “Wow! Your environment has changed in some way, and something unforeseen has just occurred that you should be aware of!,” so the animal becomes aroused or more vigilant. In my lab, we are very interested in how the animal encodes that information.

The critical thing here is the fact that memories can exist in different temporal domains, and very different mechanisms are brought onboard across these. You probably know of short-term or working memory, intermediate-term memory, and long-term memory — these kinds of classifications. Aplysia shows them in great behavioral detail. By changing the pattern in behavioral training, we can make a memory that lasts 10 minutes or a memory that lasts 10 weeks in an animal.

We have found that the different temporal domains of memory can be substantiated and played out in parallel. In Aplysia, it’s not always the case that information moves from short-term to intermediate-term to long-term memory. Rather, these different temporal domains, which certainly can be distinguished behaviorally, can exist, and be laid down in parallel in the brain.

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