Kei Igarashi (center), UCI associate professor of anatomy & neurobiology, is awarded the 19th Japan Academy Medal during a ceremony Feb. 7 in Tokyo as Crown Prince Akishino and Crown Princess Kiko (right) look on. NHK
Kei Igarashi (center), UCI associate professor of anatomy & neurobiology, is awarded the 19th Japan Academy Medal during a ceremony Feb. 7 in Tokyo as Crown Prince Akishino and Crown Princess Kiko (right) look on. NHK

Irvine, Calif., Feb. 7, 2023 — Kei Igarashi, associate professor of anatomy & neurobiology at the University of California, Irvine School of Medicine, has been named one of six scholars to win the 19th Japan Academy Medal.

Widely considered the academy’s most prestigious award for Japanese researchers under the age of 45 in all fields of science and humanities, it was bestowed on Igarashi in recognition of his discoveries on the neural circuit mechanisms of associative memory and how they are affected by Alzheimer’s disease.

“I am honored and humbled to be selected for this esteemed award,” he said. “Since I joined UCI in 2016, my work has focused on brain mechanisms involved with memory impairment. My goal is to provide more in-depth comprehension of how the brain enables associative memory, which is the ability to learn and remember the relationship between two unrelated items. I hope this achievement will raise awareness of our findings and accelerate the development of therapies to stop memory loss.”

Igarashi’s most recent breakthrough came in 2021 with the discovery of how the brain creates memories of delicious smells. A deeper understanding of the mechanics of this neural circuit activity may help advance research into the causes of Alzheimer’s disease, because a common sign of onset is an impaired sense of smell. Igarashi’s team revealed a previously unknown function.

The dopamine reward signal acts as a catalyst between the olfactory cortex, which processes smell, and the hippocampus, which processes memory. Information is exchanged through the entorhinal cortex, which bridges the two regions. The area of the brain most quickly damaged by Alzheimer’s is the entorhinal cortex, but its function has been unclear. The team found that neurons in the entorhinal cortex, called fan cells, link a previously meaningless scent to an experience, forming an associative memory.

These results help clarify the pathophysiology of the neural circuit activity of the entorhinal cortex during the loss of associative memory, which may lead to a treatment for Alzheimer’s and other memory disorders.

Crown Prince Akishino and Crown Princess Kiko presented the awards during a ceremony at The Japan Academy, in Tokyo, on Feb. 7. “It was the first time I met the royal family, which was very exciting and quite an honor,” Igarashi said.

The academy also chose Asa Ito, director of the Future of Humanity Research Center at the Tokyo Institute of Technology; Ayako Kondo, professor at the University of Tokyo Institute of Social Science; Takumi Sannomiya, associate professor of materials and chemical technology at the Tokyo Institute of Technology; Michitaka Notaguchi, associate professor of bioscience and biotechnology at Nagoya University; and Satoshi Horike, associate professor at the Kyoto University Institute for Advanced Study.

Founded in 1870, The Japan Academy is similar to the United States’ National Academy of Sciences. It honors leading Japanese scholars with distinguished records of scientific as well as other academic achievement.

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