Henrietta C. Leiner


Dr. Henrietta C. Leiner is best known for her studies on the cerebellum in humans- establishing its role high-level mental capabilities (such as language processing).  Prior to Professor Leiner’s work, the scientific thinking only recognized the cerebellum’s contribution to motor functions.

Early Life and Contribution to Mathematics and Early Computer Science

Leiner was born in New York City and attended public secondary school in the gifted program of Hunter High School. She later attended Hunter College for her undergraduate studies where she majored in both mathematics and physics.  She obtained a Master’s degree at the University of Pennsylvania studying symbolic logic, which provided her with a foundation in the principles of computing that would define her later work.

Although Leiner had originally wanted to continue on to complete her PhD, she was recruited by the U.S. Civil Service Commission which was seeking scientists with backgrounds in physics to aid in the effort to win World War II. She accepted a post at the U.S. National Bureau of Standards in the mathematical analysis group; the group’s work included a device that permitted detonation of missiles prior to impact, which greatly increased the effectiveness of Allied missiles during the war. During her time at the National Bureau she met her husband Alan Leiner.

After World War II, the mathematical analysis group shifted their work toward computing and became pioneers in efforts to develop early computers under Harry Diamond [link: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harry_Diamond_(engineer)].  After Leiner married, she was forced to leave the computing group because both husband and wife were not permitted to work in the same department.  Leiner transferred to the electron tube group, also within the Electronics Division. They worked closely with the computing group to develop early electronic computing in a shift away from the physical punch card computing systems used in World War II. She contributed to work building on the ENIAC (the first all-electronic general purpose computer, which was developed at the University of Pennsylvania shortly after she graduated from that institution) and testing the UNIVAC in 1951 for use in the U.S. Census.

Contribution to Neuroscience

Following her career at the National Bureau, Leiner became interested in neuroanatomy and enrolled in a PhD program at Columbia University. As part of the program, Leiner attended classes at Columbia’s medical school to learn brain anatomy. She chose to focus on the cerebellum because “it seemed likely to me that that would be the most computer-like part of the brain”. It was known that the phylogenetically older portion of the cerebellum was connected to the motor cortex.  However, Leiner’s work showed that there was also a phylogenetically newer portion of the cerebellum, found only in humans and other evolutionarily advanced species, that connected to the prefrontal cortex.  This suggested the cerebellum contributed to higher level mental functions and not just motor function; a hypothesis put forth through Leiner’s case study in collaboration with Robert Dow, an authority on the cerebellum. 

Leiner died on May 12, 2012 at the age of 98.

Well-Known Publications:

1986: Does the cerebellum contribute to mental skills? https://doi.org/10.1037/0735-7044.100.4.443.  Professor Leiner’s seminal work in this area found that the cerebellum can send signals from the dentate nucleus to the cerebral frontal cortex via the thalamus. Leiner proposed tomography for future experiments to validate that the cerebellum did play a role in mental processing of ideas, which ultimately proved correct.

1994: The underestimated cerebellum https://doi.org/10.1002/hbm.460020406

Solving the mystery of the cerebellum doi: 10.1007/s11065-010-9140-z.




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