1 year 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)

6 hours ago

Chuck Martin endorses Republican Russell Bedsole in Alabama House District 49

Russell Bedsole’s Republican candidacy has received a boost in the Alabama House District 49 special election.

This seat, covering parts of Bibb, Chilton and Shelby Counties, was vacated by the resignation of State Rep. April Weaver (R-Brierfield), who left the legislature to join the administration of President Donald J. Trump.

Bedsole led the pack in the GOP primary held last week, finishing ahead of second-place Mimi Penhale and third-place Chuck Martin. Since no candidate got a majority, a runoff will be held on September 1.

On Wednesday night, Martin endorsed Bedsole in that runoff via a Facebook post.


Martin led Bibb County in primary votes and finished with a competitive 24.25% overall.

In a release, he expounded on why he is publicly backing Bedsole.

“After thoughtful consideration, I am endorsing Russell Bedsole to represent District 49 in the Alabama House of Representatives,” Martin stated. “Like me, Bedsole has deep roots in District 49. I believe he will be a strong voice for Bibb, Shelby, and Chilton counties, and he will fight for our communities’ conservative Christian values in Montgomery.”

Bedsole, a longtime deputy sheriff in Shelby County and an Alabaster city councilor, has already been endorsed by the likes of Shelby County Sheriff John Samaniego and the Alabama State Fraternal Order of the Police in the race.

“It is an honor to be endorsed by Chuck Martin,” Bedsole commented. “As a representative of District 49, I will fight for pro-life and pro-Second Amendment legislation, along with funding for developing crucial infrastructure, in the Alabama House of Representatives.”

Penhale, the legislative director for Shelby County’s legislative delegation, has taken an unpaid leave of absence from her state government job to run for office. She has been endorsed by the Alabama Farmers Federation.

Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

8 hours ago

License plate to support Alabama business proposed — Must meet 1,000 application benchmark

A license plate that will support Alabama small businesses will be created if 1,000 apply for one by July 31, 2021.

Funds from purchasing the plate will be given to Main Street Alabama, which will in turn provide workshops and grants to small businesses around the Yellowhammer State.

The tag can be applied for here. A $50 fee accompanies the application.

“With this program, individuals can show their dedication to their favorite small businesses, who in many cases are their friends and neighbors, with a tag that gives back to them with workshops and grants focused on strengthening their business,” said Main Street Alabama state coordinator Mary Helmer in a statement.


Helmer added, “Small businesses keep it local by consistently sponsoring the local baseball team, providing gift baskets for the local charity drives and creating jobs in their community.”

Main Street Alabama is a non-profit entity and an offshoot of Main Street America organization.

The artwork on the tag was created by Chris Seagle, a graphic designer based in Birmingham.

The idea for a car tag supporting small business originated among a group of elected officials in Jefferson County.

Casey Middlebrooks, a member of the group and a Hoover City Councilman, said that his fellow officials “felt Main Street Alabama had the statewide presence and resources to facilitate support to small businesses throughout the state.”

Henry Thornton is a staff writer for Yellowhammer News. You can contact him by email: henry@yellowhammernews.com or on Twitter @HenryThornton95

8 hours ago

Ivey urges Alabamians to complete Census — Billions in funding, congressional seat at stake

Governor Kay Ivey (R-AL) on Friday released a video public service announcement urging Yellowhammer State residents to complete the 2020 Census.

The deadline to complete the Census recently was moved up to September 30, meaning there is less than seven weeks left for Alabamians to either self-respond or respond to Census Bureau field staff.

Leaders from the public sector, as well as industry, economic development, charitable and civic organizations, have warned for months that Alabama has a lot on the line during the 2020 Census response period.

Projections have shown the state will lose a congressional district and corresponding electoral college vote — likely to a far-left state such as New York, California or Illinois — if Alabama’s response rate continues to lag.


“Complete your 2020 Census today,” Ivey said to begin the new PSA. “We only have until September 30.”

“Without you, Alabama stands to lose billions in funding, a seat in Congress and economic development opportunities,” she continued. “It only takes minutes to complete. Go to my2020census.gov or participate by phone or mail.”

The governor concluded, “Be counted — if not for you, for those in Alabama who depend on you for a brighter tomorrow.”


Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

9 hours ago

Report: Birmingham golf tournament Regions Tradition canceled for 2020

A report from WBRC in Birmingham on Friday says that the yearly golf tournament Regions Tradition has canceled the 2020 edition due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The event organizers say it will be back in early May of 2021.

WBRC says they were told by a “source close to the tournament” about the decision to cancel the 2020 version.

The tournament had previously been rescheduled from its normal late spring/early summer slot until September due to COVID-19 concerns.


Regions Tradition is a tournament on the PGA Tour Champions circuit, a series of competitions held each year for golfers over age 50.

According to Alabama NewsCenter, the annual Regions Tradition tournament has an economic impact on the Birmingham area between $20 million and $25 million every year.

The Tradition was first held in 1989 and is one of the five major golf tournaments on the Senior Circuit.

Regions took over as the event’s sponsor in 2010 and relocated the tournament to the Birmingham area beginning in 2011.

Steve Stricker won the tournament in 2019, a title he will now keep for two years.

Henry Thornton is a staff writer for Yellowhammer News. You can contact him by email: henry@yellowhammernews.com or on Twitter @HenryThornton95

9 hours ago

Jefferson County health officials say coronavirus pandemic precautions will continue into 2021

Two impactful figures in Jefferson County’s healthcare system advised on Friday that the coronavirus pandemic and resulting precautions such as mask-wearing will remain a major factor in public life at least through the end of 2020.

Jefferson County Health Officer Dr. Mark Wilson and CEO of the UAB Health System/Ascension St. Vincent’s Alliance Will Ferniany briefed reporters on coronavirus information during a Friday morning videoconference.

“This pandemic is not going away by the end of December,” warned Ferniany.

Wilson said it was “very likely” that he would push to keep a mask order in place across Jefferson County “through the flu season” which would indicate the ordinance would stay in place at least through the spring of 2021.


“We have pretty good evidence that our face-covering orders, and our help from the public wearing face coverings, has made a difference,” remarked Wilson.

“We still have a ways to go but we’re starting to bend the curve downward,” Wilson told reporters.

The remarks made by Wilson and Ferniany are similar to what Mobile County epidemiologist Dr. Rendi Murphree told Yellowhammer News in recent days.

Ferniany said that UAB is making a significant investment in rapid testing that should be ready for action by the end of the year, the availability of which should make dealing with the virus more manageable.

Wilson highlighted a standard he felt more people should understand.

The county health officer said that any person exposed to someone positive for COVID-19 should quarantine for 14 days, even if they go out and get a test showing they do not have the virus.

“Fourteen days is the maximum amount of time from being exposed to the virus where you could still develop symptoms,” Wilson said to explain the policy.

Ferniany said UAB Hospital is currently treating around 90 patients, down from a peak of 130. He relayed that 40 of the COVID-19 patients currently hospitalized are in the ICU.

RELATED: Alabama coronavirus update: Hospitalizations begin to decrease, new cases falling

The executive also said that the toughest aspect of caring for COVID-19 cases currently is the shortage of nurses. He said the hospitals he oversees are down “several hundred nurses” with the partial explanation that traveling nursing companies are luring workers away with higher wages.

Wilson reported additional good news for Jefferson County. He said that the area is not experiencing a higher rate of black citizens dying from COVID-19 than white citizens.

“So far we’re not seeing a racial disparity in terms of deaths in Jefferson County,” he relayed.

“Forty-one percent of our deaths in Jefferson County with COVID-19 are African American. The African American population is 43%,” Wilson stated.

Yellowhammer News asked Wilson what kind of benchmarks he would need to be passed to trigger a loosening of coronavirus precautions and whether that would be dependent on a vaccine.

“We’re not going to be out of the woods for quite a long time,” Wilson responded.

“The bottom line will be the amount of disease activity we have in the community, and the trajectory of that,” he continued.

With respect to the vaccine, Wilson replied, “It is really hard to predict what is going to happen with the vaccine: How effective is it going to be, how widespread we’re going to be able to vaccinate people and how soon. There are way too many unknowns for us to say much about that.”

Henry Thornton is a staff writer for Yellowhammer News. You can contact him by email: henry@yellowhammernews.com or on Twitter @HenryThornton95