Robert T. Knight

Title
Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience
Department
Dept of Psychology
Phone
(510) 642-6075
Fax
(510) 643-9334
Research Expertise and Interest
cognitive neuroscience, language, physiology, memory, attention, psychology, working memory, neuropsychology, human prefrontal cortex, neural mechanisms of cognitive processing, sensory gating, sustained attention, ad novelty detection
Research Description

My laboratory studies the contribution of subregions of human prefrontal cortex to the control of cognitive and social behavior. We employ electrophysiological, MRI and behavioral techniques in neurological patients with frontal lobe damage in an effort to understand the neural mechanisms of cognitive processing.

Current Projects

The laboratory employs neuroanatomical, electrophysiological, blood flow, neuropsychological and behavioral techniques to study attention and memory mechanisms in humans. A long standing interest has centered on behavioral and physiological study of human dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. Ongoing work in this area includes studies of sensory gating, working memory, sustained attention, language and novelty detection. Experimental subjects are typically neurological patients with CT or MRI scan defined damage in subregions of prefrontal cortex and age matched controls. Lesions are further defined by high resolution 3-D MRI scanning. The contribution of prefrontal cortex to age related changes is also an active ongoing topic of inquiry. Converging evidence from experiments in neurological patients in the visual, auditory and somatosensory modalities has documented a critical regulatory role of dorsolateral prefrontal cortex in multiple tasks. Prefrontal cortex modulates both inhibitory and excitatory activity in distributed neural networks with apparent differential contributions from dorsal and ventral prefrontal subregions. In addition to a role in modulation of sensory processing, a prefrontal-hippocampal network is also selectively engaged by novel events and this phenomena is currently being investigated in several studies. Although dorsal and ventral prefrontal cortex has been the main area of research, more recently we have begun to examine patients with discrete orbito-frontal damage with additional interests in the neural control of emotion.

Over the last few years, the laboratory has also begun investigation of mesial temporal function with a particular emphasis on the relationship of novelty detection, and the influence of prefrontal-hippocampal interactions on subsequent memory for distinct unusual events. Other studies are investigating the role of subregions of the mesial temporal region in familiarity and recognition memory and in memory binding. The experimental subjects in the mesial temporal experiments include patients with unilateral infarction of the posterior hippocampus and adjacent structures due to posterior cerebral artery occlusion and patients with CA1 hypoxic damage. The laboratory employs neuroanatomical, electrophysiological, blood flow, neuropsychological and behavioral techniques to study attention and memory mechanisms in humans. A long standing interest has centered on behavioral and physiological study of human dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. Ongoing work in this area includes studies of sensory gating, working memory, sustained attention, language and novelty detection. Experimental subjects are typically neurological patients with CT or MRI scan defined damage in subregions of prefrontal cortex and age matched controls. Lesions are further defined by high resolution 3-D MRI scanning. The contribution of prefrontal cortex to age related changes is also an active ongoing topic of inquiry. Converging evidence from experiments in neurological patients in the visual , auditory and somatosensory modalities has documented a critical regulatory role of dorsolateral prefrontal cortex in multiple tasks. Prefrontal cortex modulates both inhibitory and excitatory activity in distributed neural networks with apparent differential contributions from dorsal and ventral prefrontal subregions. In addition to a role in modulation of sensory processing, a prefrontal-hippocampal network is also selectively engaged by novel events and this phenomena is currently being investigated in several studies. Although dorsal and ventral prefrontal cortex has been the main area of research, more recently we have begun to examine patients with discrete orbito-frontal damage with additional interests in the neural control of emotion.

Over the last few years, the laboratory has also begun investigation of mesial temporal function with a particular emphasis on the relationship of novelty detection, and the influence of prefrontal-hippocampal interactions on subsequent memory for distinct unusual events. Other studies are investigating the role of subregions of the mesial temporal region in familiarity and recognition memory and in memory binding. The experimental subjects in the mesial temporal experiments include patients with unilateral infarction of the posterior hippocampus and adjacent structures due to posterior cerebral artery occlusion and patients with CA1 hypoxic damage.

In the News

January 13, 2020

New helmet design can deal with sports’ twists and turns

As a neurologist, Robert Knight has seen what happens when the brain crashes around violently inside the skull. And he’s aware of the often tragic consequences. So, Knight invented a better helmet — one with more effective padding to dampen the effects of a direct hit, but more importantly, an innovative outer shell that rotates to absorb twisting forces that today’s helmets don’t protect against.
November 20, 2017

Six UC Berkeley faculty elected AAAS fellows

Six scientists are among the 396 newest fellows elected to the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) for “advancing science applications that are deemed scientifically or socially distinguished.”
December 20, 2016

Pop-outs: How the brain extracts meaning from noise

When you’re suddenly able to understand someone despite their thick accent, or finally make out the lyrics of a song, your brain appears to be re-tuning to recognize speech that was previously incomprehensible.
January 11, 2016

Will computers ever truly understand what we’re saying?

From Apple’s Siri to Honda’s robot Asimo, machines seem to be getting better and better at communicating with humans. But some neuroscientists caution that today’s computers will never truly understand what we’re saying.

February 16, 2015

Brain’s iconic seat of speech goes silent when we actually talk

The brain’s speech area, named after 19th century French physician Pierre Paul Broca, shuts down when we talk out loud, according to a new study that challenges the long-held belief that “Broca’s area” governs all aspects of speech production.

September 8, 2014

Study links honesty to prefrontal region of the brain

Are humans programmed to tell the truth? Not when lying is advantageous, says a new study led by Assistant Professor Ming Hsu at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business. The report ties honesty to a region of the brain that exerts control over automatic impulses.

January 31, 2012

Science decodes 'internal voices"

Berkeley researchers have demonstrated a way to reconstruct words, based on the brain waves of patients thinking of those words.

March 24, 2011

UC Berkeley, UCSF join forces to advance frontier of brain repair

Researchers at UC Berkeley and UCSF have launched the joint Center for Neural Engineering and Prostheses to develop technology that can translate brain signals into movements controlling prosthetic limbs, circumventing damaged or missing neural circuits in people suffering from disabling conditions.

December 8, 2010

Our brains are wired so we can better hear ourselves speak, new study shows

Like the mute button on the TV remote control, our brains filter out unwanted noise so we can focus on what we’re listening to. But when it comes to following our own speech, a new brain study from UC Berkeley shows that instead of one homogenous mute button, we have a network of volume settings that can selectively silence and amplify the sounds we make and hear.

November 3, 2010

Phantom images stored in flexible network throughout brain

The ability to store phantom images in our brain in order to make visual comparisons is impaired by damage to the prefrontal cortex, but intact regions of the prefrontal cortex pick up the slack in less than a second. Damage to the basal ganglia, however, causes more widespread impairment of visual working memory. New studies by UC Berkeley neuroscientists show how the prefrontal cortex flexibly picks up new functions while retaining old.

September 4, 2009

Research restructuring leads to net reduction in jobs

In mid-July, Vice Chancellor for Research Graham R. Fleming announced that the dire budget circumstances facing the campus necessitated taking a hard look, as quickly as possible, at the structure of services and deployment of resources administered from his office.

In the News

January 13, 2020

New helmet design can deal with sports’ twists and turns

As a neurologist, Robert Knight has seen what happens when the brain crashes around violently inside the skull. And he’s aware of the often tragic consequences. So, Knight invented a better helmet — one with more effective padding to dampen the effects of a direct hit, but more importantly, an innovative outer shell that rotates to absorb twisting forces that today’s helmets don’t protect against.
November 20, 2017

Six UC Berkeley faculty elected AAAS fellows

Six scientists are among the 396 newest fellows elected to the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) for “advancing science applications that are deemed scientifically or socially distinguished.”
December 20, 2016

Pop-outs: How the brain extracts meaning from noise

When you’re suddenly able to understand someone despite their thick accent, or finally make out the lyrics of a song, your brain appears to be re-tuning to recognize speech that was previously incomprehensible.
January 11, 2016

Will computers ever truly understand what we’re saying?

From Apple’s Siri to Honda’s robot Asimo, machines seem to be getting better and better at communicating with humans. But some neuroscientists caution that today’s computers will never truly understand what we’re saying.

February 16, 2015

Brain’s iconic seat of speech goes silent when we actually talk

The brain’s speech area, named after 19th century French physician Pierre Paul Broca, shuts down when we talk out loud, according to a new study that challenges the long-held belief that “Broca’s area” governs all aspects of speech production.

September 8, 2014

Study links honesty to prefrontal region of the brain

Are humans programmed to tell the truth? Not when lying is advantageous, says a new study led by Assistant Professor Ming Hsu at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business. The report ties honesty to a region of the brain that exerts control over automatic impulses.

January 31, 2012

Science decodes 'internal voices"

Berkeley researchers have demonstrated a way to reconstruct words, based on the brain waves of patients thinking of those words.

March 24, 2011

UC Berkeley, UCSF join forces to advance frontier of brain repair

Researchers at UC Berkeley and UCSF have launched the joint Center for Neural Engineering and Prostheses to develop technology that can translate brain signals into movements controlling prosthetic limbs, circumventing damaged or missing neural circuits in people suffering from disabling conditions.

December 8, 2010

Our brains are wired so we can better hear ourselves speak, new study shows

Like the mute button on the TV remote control, our brains filter out unwanted noise so we can focus on what we’re listening to. But when it comes to following our own speech, a new brain study from UC Berkeley shows that instead of one homogenous mute button, we have a network of volume settings that can selectively silence and amplify the sounds we make and hear.

November 3, 2010

Phantom images stored in flexible network throughout brain

The ability to store phantom images in our brain in order to make visual comparisons is impaired by damage to the prefrontal cortex, but intact regions of the prefrontal cortex pick up the slack in less than a second. Damage to the basal ganglia, however, causes more widespread impairment of visual working memory. New studies by UC Berkeley neuroscientists show how the prefrontal cortex flexibly picks up new functions while retaining old.

September 4, 2009

Research restructuring leads to net reduction in jobs

In mid-July, Vice Chancellor for Research Graham R. Fleming announced that the dire budget circumstances facing the campus necessitated taking a hard look, as quickly as possible, at the structure of services and deployment of resources administered from his office.

Featured in the Media

Please note: The views and opinions expressed in these articles are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or positions of UC Berkeley.
January 22, 2020
Amber Lee
Concerned about the many devastating brain injuries he's witnessed in his years of doing brain research, psychology and neuroscience professor Robert Knight has invented a new and improved helmet that reduces the effects of both direct blows and the twisting forces that other helmets can't protect against. The helmet is suitable for anyone at risk for head injury, including football and hockey players, police, soldiers, snowboarders, construction workers, and cyclists. The most innovative and important feature is the outer shell's ability to protect against twisting motion, since that can tear brain fibers -- as dangerous an outcome as concussion. "The inside shell doesn't move. The outside shell takes the force. The outside struts absorbs the energy and it just snaps back in place," Professor Knight says. Link to video. For more on this, see our press release at Berkeley News.
January 15, 2020
Robert Sanders
Psychology and neuroscience professor Robert Knight has invented a new and improved helmet that reduces the effects of both direct blows and the twisting forces that other helmets can't protect against. The helmet is suitable for anyone at risk for head injury, including football and hockey players, police, soldiers, snowboarders, construction workers, and cyclists. The most innovative and important feature is the outer shell's ability to protect against twisting motion, since that can tear brain fibers -- as dangerous an outcome as concussion. "A direct linear impact to the head certainly is not good, but in addition, there are rotational forces that twist the brain. It's like in boxing, where one roundhouse punch comes in, the head turns, and they are out," Professor Knight says. "That's because the brain is just not designed to take rotation; you end up with damage to critical connecting fibers in the brain." This story originated as a press release at Berkeley News. In related news, alum Edward Bullard, the inventor of the hard hat, is being inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame this year. Link to a story on that topic at Daily Commercial News.
January 14, 2019
Al Saracevic
Psychology and neuroscience professor Robert Knight, of Berkeley's Knight Lab believes he and his team has come up with a helmet design that could dramatically reduce the brain-injury risks of high-impact sports, including football, hockey, and cycling. The design, which they hope to bring to market with their startup Brainguard, protects against "rotational force" -- the twisting and turning of the brain that occurs when the head confronts blunt force. "For 10 years, I ran the neuroscience institute at Berkeley," Professor Knight says. "In that 10-year period I had five Ph.D.s -- car versus bicycle, helmeted -- end up in the ICU. I just said, 'Something's not right. These helmets, they're just not doing what they should do.' I'm not saying helmets are bad. But, really, what they stop is your skull cracking and getting a big blood clot. What they don't stop, very effectively, is twisting and turning. ... We came up with a really simple design, which is a two-shelled helmet. ... The outer shell is attached to the inner shell with struts. So, when the outside's hit, it turns. The force is dissipated by the struts and it doesn't get to the inner shell, which is what's attached to the athlete."
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