A central theme of Gabrieli’s research is memory in its different forms: the short term recall that allows us to dial a phone number; our long-term memory of events and places; and the emotional associations that often color our factual memories. These different types of memory are mediated by different brain systems, and Gabrieli seeks to tease these systems apart and understand how they interact to shape the overall sense of the past. For instance, emotionally arousing events cause us to remember the otherwise forgettable circumstances leading up to them -- where we were on the morning of 9/11, or the day the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded. Gabrieli’s work has helped to explain this phenomenon by showing how emotions affect the brain systems that underlie our recollection of time and place.
Memory declines in old age, especially with Alzheimer’s disease, and one aim of Gabrieli’s current research is to predict from brain scans who will develop Alzheimer’s disease and when -- an important goal both for guiding clinical treatment and for testing the efficacy of new drugs.
At the other end of life, Gabrieli studies how memory emerges during childhood. He has shown, for example, that brain structures responsible for the visual recognition of specific categories such as faces or places develop during childhood in parallel with the child’s ability to remember that category. As brain imaging technology improves, it becomes possible to scan children at ever younger ages, and this will open the door to many new questions about normal human development as well as developmental disorders such as dyslexia or autism.