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Thomas A. Knight, Ph.D.
Associate Professor
Biology Department
Whitman College

EMAIL or Phone: 509.524.2010

TK lab pic



Dr. Leena Knight

Research trajectory and projects:

I am a neuroscientist working to describe the neural mechanisms underlying behavior (primarily movement and motor learning) in order to further our understanding of brain function and to improve treatment for those with movement deficits (e.g., Parkinson's Disease). I primarily examine the control of eye and head movements of mammals to advance our understanding of mechanisms of movement coordination, sensorimotor integration, neural circuitry, neural plasticity, and neuropathology.

To study these features of the brain, my students and I map neural circuits (with neuroanatomical histochemistry), record and manipulate the electrical activity of neurons (electrophysiology) in mice, and, since 2011, have begun examining oculomotor (eye) and cephalomotor (head movement) behavior in humans (videooculography) with noninvasive, portable eye-tracking equipment (the EyeSeeCam). Because humans rely on vision so extensively, there are several exciting links between basics of eye-head coordination and cognitive neuroscience (e.g., attention, decision making, and perception), developmental and social psychology, etc.

Students in my lab join me in working to answer questions like:

1. Is the anatomy of the brain connections in the laboratory mouse similar to that in cats, monkeys and humans? Do the neurons and circuits behave similarly in the mouse? If the answer to these questions is yes, we can next work to determine which genes in mice are critical for function.

2. How are large-amplitude (e.g., 90 deg), combined eye-head gaze shifts controlled for accuracy? Are there differences in brain mechanisms of control for different forms of gaze shifts (e.g., memory guided v. visually guided)? What regions of the brain are necessary for these abilities?

3. Current models of eye-head coordination cannot explain differences in eye and head movement proportions between subjects completing identical tasks. Is there no single mechanism by which the human brain coordinates accurate, combined eye-head gaze shifts? What social contexts and behavioral needs might be influence the fundamental strategy?

4. Can precise measurements of combined eye-head gaze shifts allow early detection of brain impairment or disease like concussion/mTBI, Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), or Parkinson's Disease (PD)? Can these observations be used to determine the precise regions of the brain impairment? Click to read more.

These questions all directly involve the same central, cohesive thread -- brain control of eye and head coordination -- and my research in this field across several years allows me to integrate information from across several species, behaviors, methodologies, and levels of analysis. I am very happy that my students and I are now in a position to translate "at the bench science" into human-centered applications (e.g., in the diagnosis of concussion, or mild Traumatic Brain Injury (mTBI)). While my research focusing directly on humans is relatively new, my research program and its results are immediately valuable for Whitman students and the neuroscience community.

My peer-reviewed work published (2), funded (1), submitted (2), or presented professionally (3) since my arrival at Whitman in 2006 demonstrates a sustainable, long-term trajectory that will reveal important new information and contribute to Whitman's educational objectives (publications, grants and presentations, respectively; student authors indicated with "*"):

  • Knight, T.A. 2012. Contribution Of The Frontal Eye Field To Gaze Shifts In The Head-Unrestrained Rhesus Monkey: Neuronal Activity, Neuroscience, 225: 213 - 36.
  • Knight, T.A. and Fuchs, A.F. 2007. Contribution of the frontal eye field to gaze shifts in the head-unrestrained monkey: effects of microstimulation. J. Neurophysiol., 97: 618 - 634.
  • Knight, T.A. 2013: Principal Investigator, NFL/GE Head Health Challenge, Phase I: Development of a during-game diagnosis of mild traumatic brain injury and post-injury measures of recovery by noninvasive measurement and comparison of eye-head gaze shifts; $300,000, two-year grant for faculty research. Submitted in July 2013, response expected in January 2014.
  • Knight, T.A. 2012: Principal Investigator, M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust Murdock College Research Program for Life Sciences: Human eye-head coordination during gaze shifts in healthy subjects and those at risk for mild head injury and neurodegenerative movement disorders; $39,872 two-year grant for faculty research; this grant was not funded in 2013.
  • Knight, T.A. 2009: Principal Investigator, M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust Murdock College Research Program for Life Sciences: Human eye-head coordination during gaze shifts in the natural environment: effects of eye position, eye movement range, and behavioral context; $66,000 two-year award for faculty research; funded 2010 - 2012.
  • Aegerter, E.R.*, Stoehr, K.R.*, Bhatt, E. M.*, Knight, L.S. and Knight, T.A. 2010. Microstimulation and anterograde tracer determination of cortical and collicular projections to the oculomotor brainstem of the mouse. Society for Neuroscience abstract 676.6.
  • Mittelsteadt, K.L.*, Olson, V., Szot, P., Knight, T.A., Raskind, M. and Knight, L.S. 2010. Altered substance P signaling in an animal model of post-traumatic stress disorder. Society for Neuroscience abstract 162.15.
  • Knight, T.A. and Fuchs, A.F. 2008. Contributions of the frontal eye field to movement coordination: activity of neurons during combined eye-head gaze shifts in the rhesus monkey. 2008 Experimental Biology meeting abstracts, Abstract L100.

If you are a student interested in any of these questions or publications, please contact me (knightt AT whitman DOT edu) and we can meet to discuss these topics, research in my laboratory, and coursework that might outfit you for exploring these types of topics.