The future of memory is looking bright

18 August 2016
Three generations of proud New Zealand women embrace their pacific heritage and meaningful legacy.

From her beginnings as a South Auckland student at Aorere College, through the University of Auckland and onto the world stage, newly appointed Samoan Professor and Associate Director of the Centre for Brain Research (CBR), Donna Rose Addis candidly took us through the corners of her memories during her Inaugural Lecture at Fale Pasifika on Thursday 18 August.

An over-achiever, Donna Rose sailed through the University of Auckland and graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in History & Psychology. At this point in her career, she was developing an interest in personal histories and autobiographies.

Donna Rose’s first postgraduate research study in 2000 - a Master of Arts in Psychology - involved a collaboration with another CBR member and Director of the Dementia Prevention Research Clinic, Associate Professor Lynette Tippett.

This project aimed to discover whether the loss of autobiographical memories in Alzheimer’s disease affect one’s sense of self? Do our memories make us who we are? As Donna Rose and Lynette found, the loss of both our semantic memory (i.e., facts about ourselves such as my favourite dessert is cheesecake) and episodic memory (i.e., past experiences such as my graduation party) affected identity, but the loss of memories from the teenage years had the most devastating effect.

A Commonwealth Scholarship allowed her to undertake a PhD at the University of Toronto under the supervision of Professors Mary Pat McAndrews and Morris Moscovitch, learning the then new technique of functional MRI.

On the infamous Tuesday 11 September 2001, Donna Rose commenced her PhD in the role that the hippocampus plays in the retrieval of autobiographical memory. She embraced Canadian lifestyle and culture wholeheartedly, and formed a lifelong friend in her supervisor Mary Pat McAndrews, who came from Canada for the Inaugural Lecture.

In her research she wanted to understand whether the role of the hippocampus, which is preferentially activated during autobiographical memory, is involved in binding together the details of memories. She also explored the impact of hippocampal damage on brain activity when remembering past experiences.

She discovered that in fact damage to this brain structure does affect the memory network, as patients show less activity in the hippocampus and across the memory network.

In 2005 Donna Rose took a position as a post-doctoral fellow at Harvard University working with Professor Daniel Schacter. It was in this post that Donna Rose first explored her leadership skills as she mentored undergraduate students and research assistants.

In her time at Harvard, she also discovered that the hippocampus was not just crucial for memory but also imagination, as it showed activation both when remembering past events and imagining the future.

Donna Rose returned to her Alma Mater – The University of Auckland - in 2008, and founded The Memory Lab, her own research enterprise where she continues to coach, mentor and encourage emerging cognitive neuroscientists.

Using high resolution fMRI and other high-tech imaging platforms, The Memory Lab has researched the engagement of the hippocampus in future imagining. Most recently, she has found that in depression, changes in hippocampus function are related to impaired future thinking; importantly this might perpetuate the sense of hopelessness so characteristic of depression.  

Among her many accolades, Donna Rose has been the recipient of an inaugural Rutherford Discovery Fellowship and the Prime Minister’s MacDiarmid Emerging Scientist Prize in 2010,  The University of Auckland Early Career Excellence Award in 2012, and the first Southern Hemisphere recipient of the Cognitive Neuroscience Society Young Investigator Award in 2015. Over the past decade, she has written 85 articles and chapters, and has received over $3 million in funding for her research programme.

Donna Rose’s next research challenge is to focus on how to enhance memory and future thinking abilities. There are many possibilities, including a new method known as Specificity Induction developed by her Harvard colleagues. Their findings are yielding positive insights, and so she believes that “the future of Memory is looking bright”.

Always popular and extremely well-liked, Donna Rose’s Inaugural Lecture was attended by multitudes of friends, colleagues, students and her proud family, and ended with a musical tribute from the students of Aorere College.


“Success is liking yourself, liking what you do and liking how you do it.”

Maya Angelou