2022 Donald O. Hebb Distinguished Contribution Award Winner: Dr. Robert Sutherland

Rob Sutherland is a Board of Governors Research Chair, Professor, Chair of the Department of Neuroscience, and Director of the Canadian Centre for Behavioural Neuroscience (CCBN). He obtained his B.Sc. from the University of Toronto and M. A. and Ph.D. in Psychology from Dalhousie University. Much of his work is focused on the neurobiology of cognition, especially on neural processes involved in normal and pathological memory.

Sutherland began studying neuroscience as it was becoming recognized as a field and he has watched it grow over the years. In the 1970s when he was starting his university studies, neuroscience courses were typically found in psychology departments. That changed with the establishment of an international society, and neuroscience evolved to the point where it now has many branches, including cognitive, behavioural, and computational neuroscience.

Following the completion of his PhD at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Sutherland joined the U of L supported by a NSERC Postdoctoral Fellowship receiving training in neuropsychology with Drs. Bryan Kolb and Ian Whishaw. His key focus was on developing better ways to measure memory in non-human animals. He devised methods that are now used by drug companies and laboratories around the world. Sutherland was then hired in the Department of Psychology as a faculty member working his way through the ranks to Professor in 1991.

Wanting to expand his skill set and work with students at all levels, Sutherland then took a position in the Department of Psychology at the University of New Mexico, soon cross-appointed to the School of Medicine in the Departments of Physiology and Neurosciences. There he was able to work with students from undergraduate to PhD levels and post-doctoral fellows and received multiple NIH grants for his memory research. During that time, he developed a theory of long-term memory that impacted the field and began focusing on understanding the role of the hippocampus in long-term memory. While scientists generally thought the hippocampus was only briefly involved in the storage of new memories, Sutherland’s work showed that the hippocampus continues to be engaged during memory recall. He also began translating spatial memory tasks to humans in a computerized environment, showing that the human hippocampus was essential to virtual spatial navigation. He has continued to study normal and pathological memory with both human and non-human participants.

He returned to the U of L as an Alberta Heritage Foundation for Medical Research Scientist when the CCBN building opened in 2001 and the U of L became home to the first Department of Neuroscience in Canada to offer degrees at the bachelor’s, master’s and PhD levels.

Sutherland has served as President of CSBBCS, President of the Confederation of Alberta Faculty Associations, North American representative to the International Neuropsychology Symposium, and also has served as a member and chair of many grant selection committees at CIHR, NSERC, DFG, and NIH. He was elected as a Fellow of the Academy of Science, Royal Society of Canada in 2021.

More recently Sutherland has focused much of his research efforts into working with transgenic mouse models of Alzheimer’s disease, focusing on the processes of spread of amyloid and pathological tau from seeded locations in the brain.

In addition to his research into Alzheimer’s disease, Sutherland continues his work on understanding exactly what the hippocampus represents and its role in memory processes. His research focuses on the nature of memory representation that necessarily engage the hippocampus and on how hippocampal activity contributes to storing knowledge in the rest of the cerebral cortex.

Sutherland recognizes how fortunate he has been to work with an amazing group of undergraduates, graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and faculty colleagues who have made essential contributions to this work.