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March 19, 2008

Larry Abbott, physicist-turned-biologist, to deliver Hofstadter Lecture on neural networks of the brain

Columbia University researcher Larry Abbott says that if your brain operated like a computer hard drive, your memory of a conversation would disappear less than five minutes afterward, as new memories overwrote the old ones in the overflowing storage space inside your head.

Five minutes is a theoretical prediction based on brain studies, but Abbott says it is borne out by the experiences of some amnesia victims, whose memories may last only two or three minutes. "It's a very, very strange existence," he said.

Luckily, the healthy human brain usually manages to get around that storage-space limitation. Abbott will explain how that happens when he gives the 2008 Robert Hofstadter Memorial Lecture, "Remembering the Future, Predicting the Past," at Stanford April 7.

Hofstadter, the late Stanford physics professor, won the Nobel Prize in 1961 for measuring the shapes of atomic nuclei.

Abbott, who worked as a postdoctoral scholar in theoretical particle physics at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center in the late 1970s, is professor of theoretical neuroscience and co-director of the Center for Theoretical Neuroscience at Columbia. His research involves using analytic techniques and computer simulation to study the electrical characteristics of single neurons, to determine how neurons interact to produce functioning neural circuits, and to investigate how large populations of neurons represent, store and process information.

His talk is scheduled for 8 p.m. Monday, April 7, at the Hewlett Teaching Center, 370 Serra Mall, Room 200. It is free and open to the public. He also will speak at more technical colloquium, "Who's Afraid of Chaotic Networks? Models of Sensory and Motor Processing in the Face of Spontaneous Neuronal Activity," at 4:15 p.m. Tuesday, April 8, in Room 201 of the Hewlett Teaching Center.



Dan Stober, News Service: (650) 721-6965,


Leonard Susskind, physics: (650) 723-2686,

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