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Neurologist Robert Knight named director of neuroscience center at UC Berkeley
17 December 2001

By Robert Sanders, Media Relations

Berkeley - Neurologist Robert T. Knight, MD, has been appointed director of the University of California, Berkeley's Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute, a group of more than 40 scientists delving into all areas of brain research.

Knight, a professor of psychology in the College of Letters & Science at UC Berkeley, is one of few brain physicians in an academic psychology department. He specializes in areas of the brain involved in attention and memory.

He succeeds Corey S. Goodman, who left on Sept. 1 to become CEO and President of Renovis, Inc., a start-up neuroscience biotech company he helped found last year.

"Bob Knight impressed us by his vision for the future of the institute," said Jan de Vries, vice provost for academic affairs and a professor of history. "The institute is still quite young, and there is a lot to be done to develop it fully. He had a clear idea of the path that would lead us there."

Neuroscience research is a major part of the campus-wide Health Sciences Initiative, launched two years ago to advance the campus's already substantial research in the area of biomedicine, and to bring fields such as engineering and physics to bear on today's health problems.

One of Knight's main goals for the two-year old institute is to expand the neuroscience program into departments not normally associated on the UC Berkeley campus with studies of the brain, including computer science and public health. Knight hopes to team up with these departments to hire eight new faculty in the next seven or eight years. In the works already is a search for a researcher in computational neuroscience, a new field that employs computer modeling to probe the complexity of the nervous system.

This is part of an effort to build up what is known as "systems neuroscience," the study of how groups of cells communicate to produce behavior. On a par with building the best neuroscience faculty possible is the need also to strengthen support for graduate students in neuroscience, he said.

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

"The human frontal lobe is the most evolved part of the human nervous system, making up 35 percent of the entire cerebral cortex, as opposed to only 10 percent in one of our close relatives, the gorilla," he said. "We're trying to understand how the frontal lobe evolved to allow us to do those things that make humans special, such as planning, organizing, thinking and emotional and social control."

Through his work at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Martinez, Calif., and at the East Bay's Highland and Merrithew hospitals, he has assembled a network of patients with damage in the prefrontal area of the brain. The patients participate as voluntary subjects in a wide variety of basic brain studies on visual perception, motor function, memory, language and attention.

"Our aim is to understand normal human behavior by studying people with certain kinds of brain damage," Knight said. 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, he added.

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, now can be pursued.

He uses behavioral and electrophysiological techniques to study cognitive processing and is currently developing the apparatus and techniques to allow simultaneous recording of electroencephalograms (EEGs) and magnetic resonance images, a fundamental advance in human brain science. He has at his disposal a state-of-the-art functional MRI machine in UC Berkeley's new Henry H. Wheeler Jr. Brain Imaging Center.

A physician for more than 25 years, he obtained his MD from Northwestern University Medical School and joined the faculty of the Department of Neurology at the UC Davis School of Medicine in 1980. He joined UC Berkeley in 1998. In his new position he becomes the Evan Rauch Professor of Neuroscience.

He is a recipient of the Jacob Javits Neuroscience Investigator Award from the National Institutes of Health, which is given for distinguished contributions to neurological research.

The Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute is supported in part by gifts from the estate of former tennis great Helen Wills, a UC Berkeley alumna.