by Don Queen, OLLI member

This spring Professor Michael Thaler returns to OLLI to teach a class entitled "Aging and the Brain." If you have ever asked "why and how the brain ages" or "why most cultures attribute wisdom to the aging," then this is the class for you. When asked to describe the class, Professor Thaler stated that since he submitted the course description, scientific developments have added new data on aging, neurology, and memory. For example, advances in computerized imaging and genetic mechanisms are leading to deeper and more accurate information about how the brain works and how and why aging affects our cognition and behavior. The class will explore current understandings of perception, memory, information processing, and emotional intelligence.  Ways of maintaining these faculties as part of successful aging will also be discussed.

Michael Thaler is professor emeritus at UC San Francisco (UCSF), where he conducts graduate seminars for medical residents and fellows. He has taught undergraduate courses on contemporary history of science, politics, and society at UC Berkeley, the Fromm Institute, and Stanford and as a visiting professor at UC Santa Cruz (UCSC). He has published extensively in the bioscientific and medical literature, and holds several prestigious scientific and public service awards. He has also taught classes for OLLI at Sonoma State and Berkeley. In 1999, after 47 years of medical training, practice, and teaching, he obtained a M.A. in History and began a second career as professor of history at UCSC.  As a community activist, he was president of The Holocaust Center of Northern California from 1982-1994 which contributed to his receiving the UCSF Chancellor's Faculty Award for Outstanding Contributions to Society in 2008.

When asked, he attributes his choice of a medical career to his being a Holocaust survivor.  After finishing high school in Canada, he said "since as a kid I had grown up in times of great distress and dislocation and crisis, and life and death decision-making on the part of my parents" … "I wanted to study people with problems in normal situations." Ultimately, he left psychiatry, but it was during his residency in pathology that he identified traumatic injuries to infants because of a fatal flaw in the administration of external cardiac massage. He resolved the problem as a project in his research residency, developing a non-traumatic technique, which according to his Schwachman Award, is still standard procedure today. This resulted in the first of his over two hundred professional publications, his documentary for police and firemen, and his being flown to speak at the San Francisco meeting of the American Medical Association.

He feels that this, at the beginning of his career, may have been his most significant contribution to patient care and played a part in his recruitment in 1967 to UCSF, which resulted in his 30-year career as professor of pediatrics, chief of pediatric gastroenterology, and director of a NIH Research Training Program in pediatric gastroenterology. Professor Thaler’s background in communicating medical, ethical, and other historical issues have made him a popular addition to the OLLI @Berkeley program.