A neural device to help patients who do not have the ability to speak is now possible, thanks in part to the work of Robert Knight. Celebrating career accomplishments, leadership, and mentoring, CNS presented the second annual Distinguished Career Contributions Award to Knight on Monday afternoon at the annual meeting in San Francisco. For the next hour, the packed grand ballroom watched as his myriad achievements to over the past four decades flashed on the big screens. But first, Knight had a surprise for the audience: a new journal for children.
He announced the imminent launch of Frontiers in Neuroscience for Kids, a new journal from Frontiers and Nature Publishing Group. “It sounds a little crazy,” Knight said, “but that’s good.” Aimed at 8- to 13-year-olds, the journal will have an editorial board comprised of children mentored by grad students and other researchers. These future scientists will then comment on two-page summaries of submitted work, leading Knight to joke, “If you think the NIH is tough…”
The passion to share cognitive neuroscience with young people stems from his own burgeoning interest in the brain early in his career. After his neurology residency, Knight became interested in the frontal lobe of the brain and has spent much of his career studying it. He pioneered some of the first electrocorticography studies to better understand what happens in the prefrontal cortex during a stroke. He also collaborated with other neuroscientists to test and ultimately employ deep brain stimulation clinically to treat the effects of Parkinson’s disease.
Much of his recent research comes from the mentorship empire he has built at the University of California, Berkeley, and internationally. In fact, one of his graduate students convinced him that building a neural prosthesis to help non-speaking patients to speak would be possible – a prospect Knight initially wrote off as too ambitious. “I was wrong,” he said, “I told him it wouldn’t work, and thank goodness he didn’t listen to me.”
In a raft of studies that are currently under way in his lab, Knight’s team has obtained some very promising results. In one instance, a computational model was able to distinguish 50 words that it had never heard before with 91 percent accuracy. “This is simply unbelievable,” Knight said. As they continue on this line of research, he sees the electrocorticographic implants helping patients who have lost the power of speech because of diseases like Broca’s aphasia Lou Gehrig’s Disease (ALS).
As a physician and cognitive neuroscientist, Knight has brought the intractable problems he has seen in his neurology practice into the laboratory and applied the scientific method (and his scientific mind) to solving them, all in the hopes of completing the cycle and taking those advances back to suffering patients. “I don’t know if we’re going to get there [with all of our research], but we’re certainly going to take a crack at it,” Knight said to end his talk.