Whishaw, Dr. Ian

2009 Winner: Outstanding Leadership In Alberta Science

Research Puts NeuroPsychology On The Agenda

Dr. Ian Whishaw has made a career of shaking up the neuroscience world with his innovative concepts.

He defied conventional wisdom in the 1970s by proposing that the brain didn’t function solely to produce mental states; that it had evolved with the purpose of producing our movements. His controversial research changed our understanding of how the brain works and the way scientists conduct research on the brain. When he arrived at the University of Lethbridge in 1970 to begin his career he had 12 students, no laboratories or equipment, and neuroscience didn’t exist.

Creating a New Field

“It wasn’t only at Lethbridge. It was everywhere,” he recounts. “You either worked in psychology or biology. People like me belonged in biology because we didn’t do the kinds of things you do in psychology.” Dr. Whishaw’s research into the brain’s influence on behaviour did a lot to dispel that myth and to put the field of neuropsychology on the scientific agenda.

Largely due to his vision, the University of Lethbridge’s Canadian Centre for Behavioural Neuroscience is on the map as one of the most important places in the world to study neuroscience. “We have our own department and building with over 100 people employed—all of them working on the brain,” Dr. Whishaw says with obvious pride.

He also takes satisfaction in the fact that all students enrolled in liberal arts at the university take a course on the brain, using the textbook coauthored by Dr. Whishaw and long-time colleague Dr. Bryan Kolb. The university bestowed its highest honour, the Ingrid Speaker Gold Medal for Research, on Dr. Whishaw for research, scholarship and teaching.

Groundbreaking Research

Dr. Whishaw is sometimes called “The Rat Whisperer”. He wears the title with a nonchalance that belies its importance. Dr. Whishaw is one of the world’s top neuroscientists and the number one authority on the intricate behavioural repertoire of the laboratory rat. His groundbreaking research using rats has been instrumental in examining how the details of bodily movements, such as hand movements, are influenced by injury or disease to the motor systems of rodents and humans.

“When I began working on rats, they were viewed as just another animal and very different from human beings,” Dr. Whishaw says. “Over the years, I’ve been able to show that rats are wonderful models to study the human condition.” He jokes “Rats are just little people without shoes and socks.”

His research helps approximately 60,000 Canadians that suffer some form of brain damage each year. Dr. Whishaw continues to study human hand movements and their relation to Parkinson’s Disease.