Allan F. Mirsky

Allan F. Mirsky passed away on Feb. 3, 2023, the morning after his 94th birthday, after a long and highly distinguished career in neuropsychology. Allan’s gentle nature, humility and kindness, and his characteristic dry sense of humor that placed some of the burdens of everyday life in perspective will be missed by his family, friends, and countless students whom he has influenced.

Allan was born and raised in New York City, New York. After graduation from the Bronx High School of Science, Allan attended the City College of New York (CCNY), where he considered studying engineering, French, pre-med studies, and biology until he discovered psychology, and never looked back. The Psychology Department at CCNY was one of the best in the country at the time, and he was inspired by Professors Herbert Birch and Joseph Barmack. As an undergraduate, he and a fellow student published a paper in Science that failed to replicate a study that found that paramecia could demonstrate avoidance conditioning. Allan speculated that the American paramecia were dumber than their counterparts in Germany, the site of the original study!

Allan went on to receive his Ph.D. from Yale in 1954. He recalled Yale as a tremendously stimulating environment, with multiple neuropsychological studies going on in the Psychology Department and at the Medical School. At the time, Yale was the center of studies of the effects of frontal lobe lesions that not only addressed scientific topics but also the need to find a treatment for WWII veterans with severe psychological problems. Allan and his mentor, Hal Rosvold, assessed symptoms and cognitive processes on pre- and post-surgical interventions. This work led to his creation of the Continuous Performance Test, or “CPT,” which has become the standard method to assess sustained attention in neuropsychology. While at Yale, Allan extended this work to examine the impact of brain lesions on the social behavior of monkeys.

Allan’s commitment to mentoring grew from his acknowledgment of the tremendous benefits of having outstanding mentors at Yale in addition to Rosvold: i.e., Karl Pribram, Paul MacLean, Frank Beach, and Janice Stevens. Upon receipt of his Ph.D., Allan was recruited to Rosvold’s new Neuropsychology Section in the Intramural Research Program of NIMH, where he continued to pursue a lifelong interest in the neural bases of and behavioral effects of seizure disorders.

After eight years at NIMH, Allan moved to Boston University as Professor of Psychiatry, Psychology, and Neurology, where he continued his research program on epilepsy, adding electrographic measures and psychopharmacological challenges to behavioral evaluations of attention in humans. He also studied attention-related neuronal activity in monkeys to inform the human work.

After 19 years at Boston University, he returned to the National Institute of Mental Health as Chief of the Laboratory of Psychology and Psychopathology. There he expanded both his research technology from neuropsychological assessments to event-related brain potentials and neuroimaging and his focus on epilepsy to other clinical brain disorders ranging from schizophrenia, mood disorders, ADHD, eating disorders, and traumatic brain injury. His approaches were particularly pertinent to schizophrenia, on which he focused on identifying its antecedents. He conducted two classic longitudinal studies including the famed Genain Quadruplets—a 25-year follow-up of four monozygous women discordant for the severity of schizophrenic illness–and the Israeli high-risk study that followed kibbutz- and town-reared children of parents with schizophrenia for more than 20 years. He also conducted numerous studies on the attention deficits observed in patients with schizophrenia and their relatives. Findings from this work led Allan to become a pioneer in the conceptualization of schizophrenia as a developmental neurocognitive disorder, thus raising the possibility that early interventions could reduce the severity of the disorder.

In 1991, Allan and co-workers published their landmark paper, “Analysis of the Elements of Attention,” identifying four (later five) distinct aspects of attention, which were measured by different neuropsychological tests and supported by different cerebral structures. This paper established the parcellation of attention into component processes and remains a standard nomenclature in the field of neuropsychology. In fact, Koziol et al. (2014) noted that the “Mirsky Model” remains as relevant today as it was 32 years ago, when it replaced the diffuse and global concept of attention by identifying several distinct processes and applied these components to systematic clinical assessment.

In the 70 years since receiving his Ph.D., Allan made major contributions to studies of attention in numerous clinical disorders including seizure disorders (he named his first sailboat “Spike and Wave”), schizophrenia, autism, violence, psychopharmacology, traumatic brain injury, and EEG and ERP patterns of various cognitive processes and disorders. He is particularly well known for his emphasis on brainstem structures and their role in attention. In a highly cited paper in 2005, he and co-author Connie Duncan theorized that specific brainstem structures may underlie disorders characterized by impaired attention.

Allan served as President of the International Neuropsychological Society in 1973, President of the Division of Physiological and Comparative Psychology of the American Psychological Association (APA) in 1982, and President of the Division of Clinical Neuropsychology of APA in 2001. He was one of the founders of the American Board of Clinical Neuropsychology and one of the first Diplomates.

In recognition of his vast contributions, Allan has been honored with many awards, including continuous research grants from the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health, Research Career and Research Scientist Awards from NIMH, an Outstanding Achievement Award in Psychology from CCNY, Distinguished Service and Contributions to the Profession of Psychology Award from the American Board of Professional Psychology, Outstanding Scientific Contributions to Psychology Award from the Maryland Psychological Association, Distinguished Career Award from the International Neuropsychological Society, and the Distinguished Lifetime Contribution to Neuropsychology Award from the National Academy of Neuropsychology.

Aside from the legacy of his stellar career, Allan contributed to the careers of hundreds of graduate students who he impressed with the central role of research applied to severe clinical conditions, as well as many young and mid-career psychologists and colleagues whose careers he mentored. Unfailingly generous with his time and expertise, he took genuine pride in their accomplishments, worked in many ways to promote their careers, and was the soul of tact. His mentorship and continual support of others will be missed most of all.

Allan is survived by his beloved wife of 36 years, Connie C. Duncan, Ph.D., a daughter, Laura Mirsky, and son, Richard Mirsky, from his previous marriage to Carol Vogel Mirsky who preceded him in death, a brother, David P. Mirsky, M.D., and his standard poodle, Matti, as well as many friends and colleagues.