3 months ago

Remembering everything: Auburn University staffer’s autobiographical memory ability may help in fight against Alzheimer’s

Markie Pasternak remembers the first day she realized her special ability had a name.

And before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let’s make it clear. She really remembers the day. All of it.

“I was in college at Marquette, and it was Aug. 26, a Tuesday in 2014,” she says. “I was wearing this white dress with red and blue flowers on it and a little jean pullover thing that day. It was an afternoon class, my second day of not living in the dorms. I think I made some pasta for lunch, because I was getting used to cooking for myself.”

Pasternak, now 25 and working in Student Affairs at Auburn University, could go on and on about that day of her psychology class, and she’d get most, if not all, of the details right. She’s one of a few dozen people known to have highly superior autobiographical memory, or HSAM, the ability to recall almost every day of her life in great detail.

For Pasternak, the memories begin just before her 11th birthday in 2005.

“About a year after that, I would think back and know what I was doing a year ago,” she says. “I remembered things like, ‘We parked here,’ and ‘We walked in this door.’ And then in eighth grade, two years later, I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh, I can remember what happened three years ago on this day.’”

“When you’re in a small town like Green Bay from a working-class family, and you’re a first-generation college student, you don’t necessarily have the academic resources for someone to tell you, ‘Hey, this is a special ability, and they’re doing research on it,’” she says.

That all changed at Marquette, when Pasternak, a psychology major, walked into that class about learning and memory.

“My teacher started talking about different types of memory and memory abilities that people have, and she suddenly started talking about HSAM,” Pasternak says. “She didn’t know the name of it, and she didn’t know much about it, but she said, ‘There is this ability out there where people have a calendar in their brain, and they can remember what happened on every day of their life.’ And I was like, wait, I can do that.”

She credits her professor, Kristy Nielson, with what happened next.

“I went up to her after class, and I’m like, ‘I think I have that thing,’” Pasternak says. “And what really amazes me about Dr. Nielson in that moment is she started by believing me. She didn’t say, ‘Oh, yeah, a lot of people think they have it’ or anything like that. She said, ‘OK, tell me more. … When I say Dec. 11, what pops in your head?’

“And immediately I could see it in my head, and I was like, ‘Oh, in 2009 that was a Friday, and I volunteered to chaperone a middle school dance as a high school volunteer, and then I went shopping at the mall for Christmas presents. I started telling her things that happened around that time, like how on the ninth there was a huge snowstorm in Green Bay and all the schools were canceled. I tried to give her verifiable events, because anyone can just say that they went shopping on a certain day. But the thing is, I actually know. I’m not making stuff up.”

Spend just a little time with Pasternak, and you know she’s not making it up. Give her specific dates and she’ll tell you all about them. Give her events and she’ll tell you when they happened, as long as it’s after 2005. (HSAM didn’t help Pasternak pass history classes – she has to have lived through a day to remember it.)

Nielson pointed Pasternak in the direction of the University of California, Irvine, where James McGaugh, a research professor in neurobiology and behavior, has been studying HSAM since 2000. He and his team tested Pasternak and then welcomed her to a group that numbers fewer than 100 around the world.

Some people would say Pasternak was diagnosed with HSAM, but she shies away from that word.

“I call it an ability,” she says. “Some people will say I was ‘diagnosed,’ which I think has a negative connotation to it. It’s really stigmatizing, because there are parts of HSAM that are hard to live with in some ways, but those parts are really tied to the fact that I also have diagnosed obsessive compulsive disorder. So I would say the negative parts of my memory are more tied to that disorder, an actual disorder, than it is having this ability.”

The negative part of HSAM? Pasternak can remember the wonderful things that happened in her life, but she remembers everything else, too – the good, the bad and the ugly.

“There were times where I was really confused in high school,” she says. “If I really got into a memory I would dwell on something, and there were times where I’d even write the wrong date on a paper because I was really focused on two years ago or something like that. And I think that disrupted me a little bit.

“There’s an element of forgiveness that goes into being a human being that we all need to practice consciously, but it can be a little hard when you can remember exactly the words that somebody said to you that were so rude,” she adds. “I can lose myself in memories pretty easily, and there are times where I’ll relive really emotionally hard things, and I’ll be stuck in a rut because I’m reliving a breakup or I’m reliving a death or something.”

A new pet, a dog named Brooks that Pasternak adopted in December (Dec. 7, 2018, to be exact) – has helped her snap out of those moments when she gets stuck on a date.

“I think of it as waking out of a dream or something like that,” Pasternak says. “I know I’ve only had Brooks for the past couple of months, so looking at him, I’m like, ‘Wait, it’s not 2015, because I have you here.’ So it’s comforting, because I have this thing that wasn’t here before. So that’s been helpful.”

Others with HSAM have called it “exhausting,” and Pasternak says it can be, but for her the negatives are outweighed by the positives, including researchers using those with HSAM to try to shed some light on Alzheimer’s disease.

“So they’re thinking, if we’ve got these people with almost super-ability for autobiographical remembering, but we also have people who lose that ability at some point, what is the difference in their brains?” she says. “So they’re using a lot of our research, I think, for Alzheimer’s, and for depression, too. That’s a big one.”

Pasternak has become friends with others with HSAM, corresponding with them via social media and, in some cases, meeting them face-to-face. She was not a part of a 2010 “60 Minutes” segment in which actress Marilu Henner acknowledged she has HSAM, but Pasternak has participated in press events with others in her “small family.”

“I met Joey and Nicole, and we did a segment for Scientific American, and the three of us just jived super well, so we have a group chat,” she says.

There’s also Becky in Australia, whom Pasternak joined on “60 Minutes Australia,” and Jessica, who is from Las Vegas and, at age 11 last year, was among the youngest people determined to have HSAM. “I haven’t met her, but I’m friends with her mother on Facebook,” Pasternak says.

Pasternak knows that people are intrigued by her and others who have HSAM, and she embraces it. She happily lets people test her when they find out about it.

“My friends are all over the spectrum,” she says. “I’ve got friends who love to talk about it and love that this is a part of me. I’ve got friends who never bring it up. I’ve got friends who don’t really understand it and maybe have no interest in understanding it. And I’ve got friends who want to talk about it all the time and are like, ‘Hey, can I use your memory for a sec?’

“I love it,” she adds. “It’s fun to talk to people and be like, ‘I remember on this day you did this.’ Because it makes people feel special that you remembered something they did or they said or something good that happened to them.”

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

2 hours ago

Alabama high school students’ experiment set to launch to International Space Station

One local public education system in Alabama is helping give a new meaning to the phrase, “The sky’s the limit.”

Students from Winfield City High School are set to have their experiment launch on Sunday to the International Space Station (ISS) as part of the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program (SSEP).

SpaceX-18 is set to depart Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at 7:32 p.m. EDT on July 21 with the payload designated “SSEP15 – Gemini.” This signifies SSEP’s 15th overall flight opportunity and is the 13th SSEP mission to the ISS. NanoRacks handles stowage of the payload on the spacecraft.

The launch will come the day after the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 landing on the Moon.

Student experiments were chosen from around the Western Hemisphere through a process that began in the fall of 2018.


Entitled “Purification of Water in Microgravity,” Winfield’s experiment will join experiments from 39 other communities in being tested in a laboratory setting aboard the ISS over an approximately four-week period.

Winfield’s proposal summary as follows:

The recent discovery of water on Mars has opened a possibility of new ways that the life sustaining liquid can be obtained in space travel. This new method would rely on collecting water from space bodies that are not our own. The only problem with this method is determining if this water would be safe to drink. Our team is proposing to study if microgravity has any effect on the purification of water. We would collect water from a non-sterile source, like a pond and mix it with purification tablets. Next, we would test the water to see if anything harmful survived.

The Winfield 12th grade students designated as co-principal investigators on the experiment are Luke Clark, Tanner Edmond, Davis Holdbrooks, Luke Jungels and Savannah Williamson. Jennifer Birmingham is their teacher facilitator.

Winfield’s SSEP students precisely measuring the amount of iodine tablet for their Water Purification experiment. (Contributed)

Congressman Robert Aderholt (AL-04), whose district includes Winfield, told Yellowhammer News that he is proud of his young constituents.

“It’s great to see these students engaging in this type of science,” the congressman said. “I congratulate them and their teachers at Winfield for participating in this program.”

“It also shows how space applications have a direct impact on the quality of life back here on earth. I look forward to following their experiment and seeing its outcome,” Aderholt concluded.

SpaceX-18 is slated to berth at the ISS one to four days after launching.

Read more about “SSEP Mission 13 to ISS” here.

Winfield City Schools also was represented on “SSEP Mission 12 to ISS” last year, when Winfield Middle School students saw their experiment make the trip.


Sean Ross is a staff writer for Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

Mobile Bay reefs project aims to help renew aquatic habitats, vanishing shoreline

The following is the latest installment of the Alabama Power Foundation’s annual report, highlighting the people and groups spreading good across Alabama with the foundation’s support.


If you were able to travel back a couple of hundred years and visit the edge of Mobile Bay near where Helen Wood Park is today, you’d see miles and miles of marshland, veined with tidal creeks and teeming with fish and other marine creatures that look to the safety of the marsh to spawn.

At low tide, there would be vast mounds of oysters around the edge of an estuary that was about 30 feet deep at its deepest point. The marshes and oyster beds of the past didn’t only serve as havens for creatures. They reduced the ability of storm tides to erode the mainland.


But a lot can change in a pair of centuries. The oyster reefs that used to encircle the bay have dwindled, and there is more ship traffic. As a result, waves eroded the marshes and shore.

“We’ve changed the dynamics of the bay,” said Judy Haner, marine and freshwater programs director for The Nature Conservancy, which is leading the charge in rebuilding Mobile Bay. “What we’re doing now is trying to give that shoreline a fighting chance. We want to help boost those habitats, not only for fish and birds and wildlife, but also to protect the shoreline from erosion.”

In this effort, the Alabama Power Foundation provided resources to build reefs in the brackish waters off Helen Wood Park, in Lourdes on the west side of Mobile Bay, and the Alabama Power Service Organization (APSO) provided manpower.

In May 2018, some 60 APSO volunteers – aged 12 to 70-plus – rolled up their sleeves, put on their boots and clamdiggers and went about the business of reef building.

In the past, The Nature Conservancy had attempted to build replacement reefs using bags of spent oyster shells – the same ingredient nature uses for reefs. But the erosive power of waves proved too intense, scattering the bags of oyster shells. Now, the conservancy opts to use “oyster castles” to construct new reefs.

Oyster castles are a relatively new way of constructing artificial reefs, using interlocking 35-pound concrete blocks. APSO volunteers developed a system using plastic “barges” to move the blocks along a human chain that snaked out into the rich brown marsh waters adjacent to a bridge over the Dog River.

Over the course of eight hours, the team of Nature Conservancy and APSO volunteers built seven artificial reefs.

“This was a new project for us,” said Erin Delaporte, an Alabama Power Customer Service manager in Mobile who is the APSO chapter president and coordinated the project. “It was a very labor-intensive day, but it was a wonderful day. It was tough work. I heard someone say they had worked eight hours on the project, but it took 48 hours to recover.

“It was worth it,” Delaporte said. “It was one of the most unique projects we’ve ever done in Mobile.”

As for the reefs, the positive effect was instantaneous.

“We wanted to restore the vertical topography of that reef and restore the waves, and you see that pretty much right away,” Haner said.

While there will be future scientific measurement of the growth of the reefs, native fish and crabs found them soon after completion of the APSO project.

For more information on the Alabama Power Foundation and its annual report, visit here.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

15 hours ago

Montevallo named Tree City USA

Montevallo was named a 2018 Tree City USA by the Arbor Day Foundation for the city’s commitment to effective urban forest management.

Montevallo met the program’s four requirements of having a tree board or department, a tree care ordinance, an annual community forestry budget of at least $2 per capita and an Arbor Day observance or proclamation.


Tree City USA has been around since 1976, providing a framework for cities to keep their communities green and full of trees.

“Tree City USA communities see the impact an urban forest has in a community firsthand,” said Dan Lambe, president of the Arbor Day Foundation. “Additionally, recognition brings residents together and creates a sense of community pride, whether it’s through volunteer engagement or public education.”

Montevallo also has Orr Park, a preserve along Shoal Creek known for tree carvings by local artist Tim Tingle.

According to the Arbor Day Foundation website, more than 3,400 communities have committed to becoming a Tree City USA. Several cities in Alabama have made the commitment, including Auburn, Birmingham, Mobile, Montgomery and Tuscaloosa. The total population of Tree City USA communities nationwide is about 145 million.

Trees serve a great purpose, increasing property values and wildlife habitat, while reducing home cooling costs and air pollution, said Montevallo Mayor Hollie Cost.

“Our natural world is at the very core of our existence. In Montevallo, we are a proud tribe of tree-huggers,” Cost said. “Being named a Tree City USA is a distinct honor, which we wholeheartedly embrace, appreciate and celebrate.”

To learn more about Tree City USA and the Arbor Day Foundation, visit https://www.arborday.org/programs/treeCityUSA/about.cfm.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

16 hours ago

VIDEO: McConnell’s Alabama relatives were slaveowners, big money being raised in the U.S. Senate race, citizenship question on census impacts Alabama and more on Guerrilla Politics …

Radio talk show host Dale Jackson and Dr. Waymon Burke take you through this week’s biggest political stories, including:

— Does Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-KY) ancestors make him responsible for reparations?

— What does a surprising $300,000 in fundraising by State Representative Arnold Mooney (R-Indian Springs) say about the Republican 2020 U.S. Senate primary?

— Now that Trump has caved on the citizenship question, what happens to the reapportionment lawsuit that has been brought by Congressman Mo Brooks (R-Huntsville) and Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall?


Jackson and Burke are joined by criminal defense attorney Jake Watson to discuss the Jeffrey Epstein case and its fallout.

Jackson closes the show with a “parting shot” at the national media’s desire to have extremely flawed candidates on the ballot in Republican states solely so Democrats will have a chance at winning.

Guerrilla Politics – 7/14/19

VIDEO: McConnell's Alabama relatives were slaveowners, big money being raised in the U.S. Senate race, citizenship question on census impacts Alabama congressional seat lawsuit and more on Guerrilla Politics …

Posted by Yellowhammer News on Sunday, July 14, 2019

Dale Jackson is a contributing writer to Yellowhammer News and hosts a talk show from 7-11 am weekdays on WVNN.

17 hours ago

State Sen. Chris Elliott: After Coastal Alabama, Toll Authority legislation could be next used in Birmingham, Huntsville

The use of tolls to fund part of the estimated $2.1 billion price tag for the proposed I-10 Mobile Bay Bridge has been the hot-button political issue for Mobile and Baldwin Counties.

Not only has it become a major topic in Alabama’s first congressional election campaign underway in southwestern Alabama, but it has also become one for the 2020 statewide U.S. Senate election campaign also underway.

Last week, Gov. Kay Ivey signed into law legislation that according to State Sen. Chris Elliott (R-Daphne) could cut between $100 million and $200 million off that $2.1 billion price-tag for the project. During an appearance on Alabama Public Television’s “Capitol Journal” that aired Friday, Elliott touted the SB154 bill’s cost-cutting effect.

However, he argued that beyond its use in Coastal Alabama, the bill could be used in other parts of the state, which suggests more tolled roadways could be on the way for Alabama.


“It’s going to be utilized,” Elliott said. “And when we realized this is where ALDOT was headed, we knew we needed to update the legislation. We needed to make sure we did everything we could to make efficient as possible so that if a toll was necessary, and ALDOT seems to think and probably is correct in saying a toll is necessary because of the lack of federal funding, then we do everything we can to drive the price down as much as we can to make sure that the cost to the folks in Alabama is as low as possible.”

“And that toll authority legislation, while it is probably going to be rolled out for the first time in coastal Alabama, could be used in other parts of the state as well, which is why I think it ultimately passed both houses and had the governor’s signature on it because the next time it gets used is going to be in Birmingham, or it’s going to be in Huntsville between Huntsville and Decatur, or some other area like that,” he added.

@Jeff_Poor is a graduate of Auburn University, the editor of Breitbart TV and host of “The Jeff Poor Show” from 2-5 p.m. on WVNN in Huntsville.