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Psychology's New Brain Doctor Sets National Precedent

by Patricia McBroom, Public Affairs
posted December 02, 1998


Robert Knight is psychology's newly hired neurologist.

The Department of Psychology has appointed to its faculty neurologist Robert Knight -- believed to be the first brain physician hired by a psychology department anywhere in the country.

Professor Knight, formerly with the medical school at UC Davis, has gathered a research group of neurological patients that will greatly expand neuroscience research on campus. Among other things, his appointment will allow Berkeley psychologists to better integrate cognitive theory with studies of the human brain.

"This is a highly unusual appointment," said Sheldon Zedeck, former chair of psychology, who helped to hire Knight. "Here is someone who is working with brain damaged patients and who will help us bring together the physical brain and psychological theories."

The appointment adds emphasis to Berkeley's role as a health science campus whose goals include the integration of physics, biology and psychology in deciphering the secrets of the human brain.

In psychology, cognitive theory has been based mainly on studies of normal human behavior, in addition to research on animal brains and behavior.

"What has been lacking is a patient population," said Stephen Palmer, director of the Institute of Cognitive Studies. "Huge areas of psychology are waiting to be explored with the inferences we can make based on different kinds of brain damage."

The unprecedented nature of the appointment was echoed by well-known neuroscientist Michael S. Gazzaniga of Dartmouth College, author of the new book "The Mind's Past" (University of California Press, 1998).

"This is big news," he said. "It's an idea whose time has come."

"There's been a huge gap between the neurosciences and psychology," Gazzaniga noted. "Berkeley's action in hiring a medical doctor rings a loud bell and hopefully will push other psychology departments to do the same."

A physician at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Martinez and at the Highland and Merrithew hospitals for more than 15 years and a professor of neurology at the UC Davis Medical School for 18, Knight has a network of 120 patients with discrete damage in particular parts of the brain. The patients, all treated originally at these local hospitals, participate as voluntary subjects in a wide variety of basic brain studies on visual perception, motor function, memory, language and attention.

"They are enthusiastic about helping us understand how the brain works, even though there may not be implications for treatment," said Knight. "Our aim is to understand normal human behavior by studying people with certain kinds of brain damage. There may be medical interventions down the road, but not at the moment."

Knight's primary interest lies in the functions of the prefrontal cortex, the lobes right behind the forehead which are the seat of higher cognitive functions and which play a primary role in controlling emotion, attention and creativity.

Knight said that with new technologies for scanning the brain, research that was deemed unapproachable 10 years ago, such as studying the neurobiology of creativity or attention focusing, can now be pursued.

The ability to compare normal individuals with patients who have specific lesions in parts of the brain such as the prefrontal cortex is crucial to making progress in the neurosciences, said Knight.

"Berkeley is making a big effort to integrate the neurosciences with psychology," he said.

Also coming from UC Davis is Lynn Robertson, adjunct professor of psychology, who will continue her brain research with the Martinez group of patients. The two new neuroscientists will join Professors of Psychology Arthur Shimamura, Richard Ivry and Jack Gallant, who are already engaged in brain studies on the neurology patients from Martinez.


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