IAS Fellow, October-December 2021

James Ainge is a senior lecturer in the School of Psychology & Neuroscience at the University of St Andrews. He gained a BSc. from St Andrews in 1998 and then completed his PhD on cholinergic brainstem mechanisms of behavioural control under Professor Philip Winn’s supervision also in St Andrews. We went on to work with Dr Emma Wood, Dr Paul Dudchenko and Professors Richard Morris and Seth grant at the Universities of Edinburgh and Stirling from 2002-2007. This is where he developed his interests in learning and memory and started using in vivo single cell recordings to examine cellular responses as animals carried out memory guided behaviours. He demonstrated that place cells, which had been predominantly interpreted as a spatial signal, were also involved in processing non-spatial information and planning. These studies were published in Journal of Neuroscience, Neuron and Hippocampus. From there he went to work with Professors Edvard and May-Britt Moser at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim from 2007-2008. His work in Norway demonstrated that some spatial representations in the rat appear to be innate while others are learned through navigational experience. This work was published in Science. Edvard and May-Britt Moser were later awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Nature wrote an autobiographical piece describing the Mosers’ work that lead up to the prize and Dr Ainge’s work was cited as one of the 6 noteworthy articles from the lab.

In 2008 Dr Ainge moved back to St Andrews to start his own lab. Since then he has taken a board interdisciplinary approach to examining the neural bases of spatial and episodic memory. The core of the labs’ work still centres on a systems neuroscience approach to understanding how the brain enables us to remember our everyday experiences. Recent work published in Current Biology demonstrates that there may be much more functional specialisation within the brain’s memory network than had previously been imagined. He collaborates with developmental and cognitive psychologists to examine these memory processes in human children and adults with recent findings published in Current Biology demonstrating that episodic memory and future planning may be dissociable cognitive functions contrary to current thinking. He also works closely with cellular neuroscientists examining the functional properties of the signalling cascades that are disrupted in Alzheimer’s disease. Recent work published in Cerebral Cortex suggests that the dietary hormone leptin, may be a potential therapeutic target for Alzheimer’s.

Dr Ainge’s expertise in how high-level cognitive functions such as memory are represented within neural networks will serve as an interesting counterpoint to the more philosophical and literary interpretations of memory taken by other participants in the IAS’ 2020 theme on representing memory. Dr Ainge is looking forward to furthering his collaboration Dr Easton and establishing a new cross-discipline understanding of memory representations.