2013 William James Fellow Award

Helen J. Neville

University of Oregon

Helen J. Neville is internationally renowned for her groundbreaking research on the plasticity of the developing brain. Her work has helped distinguish the brain systems and functions that are largely fixed from those that are modifiable by experience during sensitive developmental periods, or that retain the ability to change, adapt, and learn throughout the lifespan.

To investigate the role of differing experience and input in human neurobehavioral development, Neville compared the behavior and cerebral organization of typically developing infants, children, and adults with those of individuals who have different sensory and/or language experience. Her work showed that compensatory changes occur in intact modalities following unimodal sensory deprivation (e.g., congenitally deaf individuals show enhanced performance in the visual processing of peripheral space and motion). Her investigation of the neural systems important to language acquisition include studies of individuals acquiring American Sign Language and of Chinese individuals who came to live in the United States at various ages. Most recently, Neville examined the effects of different types of training on brain development, and her research yielded important information for the design and implementation of educational programs.

Neville works tirelessly to teach all who would benefit from a better understanding of early brain development. To reach parents, educators, and policymakers, she produced Changing Brains, a DVD on brain development that includes practical recommendations based on scientific evidence. Her many outreach activities include a week-long summer program for academically talented 9th graders from low socioeconomic backgrounds in which they are encouraged to consider seeking a college education.

Neville’s contributions are an extraordinary combination of theoretical insight, methodological elegance, important empirical findings, and applied significance. Her work spans developmental and cognitive psychology, linguistics, neurobiology, and education and positions her at the forefront of cognitive neuroscience.