NEWS RELEASE, 11/17/98

UC Berkeley sets a national precedent; campus hires a brain doctor as a professor of psychology

By Patricia McBroom, Public Affairs

BERKELEY -- The Department of Psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, has appointed a neurologist to its faculty - believed to be the first brain physician hired by a psychology faculty anywhere in the country.

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

"This is a highly unusual appointment," said Sheldon Zedeck, former chairman 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 UC Berkeley's role as a health science campus which has, as one aim, the integration of physics, biology and psychology in breaking open 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 at UC Berkeley. "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 and author of the new book "The Mind's Past" (University of California Press, 1998).

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

"There's been a huge gap between the neurosciences and psychology," said Gazzaniga. "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 modern ways of scanning the brain, things that were deemed unapproachable ten years ago, such as studying the neurobiology of creativity or attention focusing, can now be done.

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 at UC Berkeley, 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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