Union Notables

Theodore W. Berger    class of 1972

Theodore W. Berger, 2010, photograph, courtesy of Theodore W. Berger

Ted Berger is in the business of engineering replacement parts for the brain. His work on developing implantable neural prostheses is helping to move the fields of bioengineering, neuroscience, and medicine to a whole new level. In his own words, "We are on the brink of stretching the capabilities of the human race."

Dr. Theodore W. Berger is the David Packard Professor of Engineering, Professor of Biomedical Engineering and Neurobiology, and Director of the Center for Neural Engineering at the University of Southern California. In 1972, Berger graduated summa cum laude from Union College after majoring in math and psychology and taking the Catlin Prize for best scholastic record.

He went on to Harvard University to study the relationships between brain function and behavior. Soon after arriving, he and another graduate student made a discovery on the brain basis of classical conditioning; their paper was published in Science. By the time he finished graduate school, Berger had already published ten papers and had won the James McKeen Cattell Award from the New York Academy of Sciences for his thesis research.

While at USC, Dr. Berger has received an National Institute of Mental Health Senior Scientist Award; was awarded the Lockheed Senior Research Award in 1997; was elected a Fellow of the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering in 1998; received a Person of the Year "Impact Award" by the AARP for his work in neural prostheses; was a National Academy of Sciences International Scientist Lecturer in 2003; and was an Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Distinguished Lecturer in 2004-2005. Dr. Berger was elected a Senior Member of the IEEE in 2005, receiving a “Great Minds, Great Ideas” award from the Electrical Engineering Times in the same year, and in 2006 was awarded USC’s Associates Award for Creativity in Research and Scholarship.

In 1997, Dr. Berger became Director of the Center for Neural Engineering at USC, an organization that helps to unite faculty with cross-disciplinary interests in neuroscience, engineering, and medicine. He has published over 170 journal articles and book chapters, and is co-editor of the book Toward Replacement Parts for the Brain: Implantable Biomimetic Electronics as Neural Prostheses, published by MIT Press. That volume “outlines current advances in research on the intracranial implantation of devices that can communicate with the brain in order to restore sensory, motor, or cognitive functions.”

Dr. Berger’s research involves experimental and theoretical approaches to developing biologically constrained mathematical models of neural systems. Much of his current research is focused on the hippocampus, a neural system essential for learning and memory functions. In the process of doing this work, Berger has become a vocal advocate for interdisciplinary research. One member of Berger’s research team is his wife, Roberta Diaz Brinton, professor of molecular pharmacology at the USC School of Pharmacy. Says Brinton, "There is a grander vision, and to realize that grander vision requires a team of people to work together. Instead of each of us making bricks, we are all building the pyramid together… We will certainly see the application of this technology within our careers."

How did Union contribute to his success? Berger has said that "The vast majority of Union courses required written exams and reports—you really learned how to think and to write. All were very problem oriented: You had to conceptualize a problem, formulate a solution, research your solution, and evaluate it. This was incredibly exciting. Professors were really good at selecting key problems in society and science; they all thought very deeply about their field and were able to distill key problems in that area. And they presented the problems in such a way that you became a partner in finding a solution."