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2013 Distinguished Cognitive Scientist Award

2013 Distinguished Cognitive Scientist Award

Helen Neville, Ph.D.

Robert and Beverly Lewis Endowed Chair
Director of the Brain Development Lab
Director of the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience
Associate Director of the Institute of Neuroscience
Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience
University of Oregon


Abstract: For several years we have employed psychophysics, electrophysiological (ERP) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) techniques to study the development and plasticity of the human brain. We have studied deaf and blind individuals, people who learned their first or second spoken or signed language at different ages, and children of different ages and of different cognitive capabilities. Over the course of this research we have observed that different brain systems and related functions display markedly different degrees or “profiles” of neuroplasticity. Some systems appear quite strongly determined and are not altered even when experience has been very different. Other systems are highly modifiable by experience and are dependent on experience but only during particular time periods (“sensitive periods”). There are several different sensitive periods, even within a domain of processing. A third “plasticity profile” is demonstrated by those neural systems that remain capable of change by experience throughout life. We have also observed the two sides of plasticity in several domains of processing: systems that are most modifiable display both more enhancements in the deaf and blind and greater vulnerability in those with or at risk for developmental disorders.

Guided by these findings, we conducted a series of studies on the effects of different types of training on brain development and cognition in typically developing, 3-5 year old children who are at risk for school failure for reasons of poverty. In the most powerful training program, we target the most changeable and vulnerable systems in 3-5 year old preschoolers whom we study before and after 8 weeks during which, once per week, the children receive attention training and their parents receive training in parenting skills and attention. Measures of parenting skills in parents, measures of problem behavior, social skills, standardized measures of cognition and ERP measures of attention and language in the children document large, significant and enduring effects of these different types of inputs on neurocognitive function when compared to both passive and active control groups. Genetic and Gene by Environment (training) interactions are also evident in these data. These studies contribute to a basic understanding of the nature and mechanisms of human brain plasticity. In addition, these results lend impetus to the further development and broader deployment of education programs based on evidence from basic research in neuroscience, especially those that impact at risk populations, to reduce academic achievement gaps, resulting in long-term positive outcomes for individuals and society. In a society committed to equal opportunity for all, many may find the prospect of reducing these large and growing gaps rewarding.

The Brain Development Lab has made a not-for-profit DVD about brain development and neuroplasticity for non-scientists. This DVD may be found at “”.

Bio: Dr. Neville was awarded the B.A. degree from the University of British Columbia, an M.A. from Simon Fraser University, and a Ph.D. from Cornell University. Her postdoctoral training was conducted at the University of California, San Diego, in the Department of Neurosciences. Her major research interests involve the biological constraints and the role of experience in neurosensory and neurocognitive development in humans. Her research methods include behavioral measures and event-related brain potentials (ERPs), as well as structural and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Her work experience includes Director of the Laboratory for Neuropsychology at the Salk Institute and Professor in the Department of Cognitive Science at the University of California, San Diego.

Dr. Neville is currently the Robert and Beverly Lewis Endowed Chair and Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience, Director of the Brain Development Lab, and Director of the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Oregon in Eugene. She has published in many books and journals including Nature, Nature Neuroscience, Journal of Neuroscience, Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, Cerebral Cortex, and Brain Research. She has received many honors including being elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, being selected as a member of the Board of Governors of the Cognitive Neuroscience Society, and serving on the Academic Panel of Birth to Three. She is active in many educational outreach programs.

For her many contributions to our understanding of the developing brain, the Cognitive and Information Sciences faculty of the University of California, Merced have named her the winner of the 2013 Distinguished Cognitive Scientist Award. Her talk will be free and open to the public. For more information about this presentation, please contact Dr. David Noelle at “” or see:

The Distinguished Cognitive Scientist Award is made possible by a generous donation from the Robert J. Glushko and Pamela Samuelson Foundation.