Richard F. Thompson, the University of Southern California neuroscientist whose experiments with rabbits led to breakthrough discoveries on how memories are physically stored in the brain, has died. He was 84.
His daughter, Virginia Thompson-DeWinter, told the Los Angeles Times that Thompson died Sept. 16 at his home in Nipomo, California. He had been suffering from congestive heart failure and had a recent fall.
In the 1980s Thompson expanded on work done by Ivan Pavlov a century earlier and cracked the mystery of how memories are “hard-wired” into the brain.
In the experiments on rabbits, a puff of air would be directed at the animal’s eye to make it blink, right after the researcher made the sound of a beep. After repeating the sequence several times, the rabbit would have a conditioned response of blinking when it heard the beep, even without the puff of air.
To prove that this learned response was stored as a memory somewhere in the brain, he removed a small amount of tissue from a rabbit’s cerebellum, a region of the brain that plays an important role in motor control.
After the surgery, the rabbit no longer blinked when the beep was sounded.
Thompson taught at Harvard and Stanford before arriving in 1987 at USC, where he developed the neuroscience research program.
He wrote or co-authored several books, including The Amazing Brain andMemory: The Key to Consciousness.
The latter explains how our brains are “modified and reorganized by our experiences” and how those experiences “change us continuously and determine what we are later able to perceive, remember, understand and become.”
Thompson is survived by his wife of 54 years, Judith Thompson, three daughters and seven grandchildren.