Bringing CNS Members Together to Make Children’s Lives Better


Ruth Nass, MD

Ruth Nass, MD

Born in New York City, Dr. Nass was awarded a by Brandeis University in 1969, having majored in philosophy. This was followed by a year of linguistics at MIT. The death of her brother in a skiing accident was associated with her decision to abandon her PhD goal and replace it with a career in medicine. She completed additional premedical studies at Brandeis in 1972 and received her M.D. degree from Einstein College of Medicine in 1975. Attracted to pediatrics, Dr. Nass became interested in child neurology during medical school – the result of her encountering Isabelle Rapin during her neurology/child neurology rotation. The influence of Dr. Rapin not only awakened her interest in the clinical aspects of child neurology, but also sparked her interest in becoming a neuroscientist, building on the groundwork established by her graduate training in linguistics. Her pediatric training took place at The New York Hospital, followed by neurology/child neurology training at Columbia Presbyterian from 1977-1980. During that training Arnold Gold proved to be another much valued mentor and role model.

Dr. Nass found the clinical aspects of her neurology training to be quite excellent. Two years as a Clinical Research Fellow at Cornell were completed in 1982. In reflecting on the influences that proved formative in her career development, Dr. Nass found the work of Michael Gazzaniga and Norman Geschwind to be particularly important with regard to neuropsychology. Professors Gazzaniga and Rapin, together with Martha Denkla and Rita Rudel, were strong influences on her development as an expert in cognitive psychology, behavioral neurology and learning disorders. Ed Kolodny and Isabelle Rapin influenced her understanding of metabolic diseases, John Freeman and Fritz Dreifuss her knowledge of epilepsy, and Joseph Volpe and Richard Koenigsberger her understanding of neonatal neurology. Darryl DeVivo proved an important influence on her development as an academician. His recognition of her importance was amply indicated by his decision to send Columbia child neurology residents to her NYU clinics to acquire experience and sophistication in behavioral and cognitive neurology.

In 1982 Dr. Nass was appointed Assistant Professor of Pediatrics and Neurology at Cornell and the following year she was named Director of the New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center Learning Disability Center. In 1985 she became Acting Chief, and in 1987 Chief of the Division of Pediatric Neurology at New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center. In 1989 Dr. Nass rose to the rank of Associate Professor at Cornell. In that same year she was named Chief of Neurology at the Blythedale Children’s Hospital, taking responsibility the ensuing three years for the care there of children with complex chronic neurological illnesses and their rehabilitative needs, a post that Sidney Carter had previously held. In 1991 she became Associate Professor of Neurology and Pediatrics at New York University with Associate Attending status at Tisch, Bellevue, and New York University Hospitals and Medical Center. She was promoted to the rank of Professor of Pediatric Neurology in 1996.

Dr. Nass has published 66 original contributions in peer-reviewed journals. She has been the first or senior author of 48 of these papers. She and her coauthors have concentrated particularly on the study of the effects that early focal brain injuries or developmental abnormalities have on language development/lateralization and reorganization as well as effects on cognition, intelligence, behavior, lexical or grammatical development, temperament, drawing ability, spatial grouping, mirror movements, and apraxia (20 papers). Three papers consider the effects of premature birth including the effects of Grade I or II IVH on visual attention and memory. Two papers consider these forms of dysfunction as the result of circulatory disturbances associated with abnormalities of the vein of Galen.

Studies of the effects of epilepsy on language function include considerations of epileptic aphasia/language regression, autistic regression, and epileptic cognitive dysfunction such as metamorphopsia (5 papers). Her paper on epileptic aphasia as a variant of PDD is highly cited. Four papers consider other aspects of autism and PDD. She has published an important, highly cited paper on the effects of subpial resection performed for autistic regression on language and another highly cited paper characterizing changes produced by section of the corpus callosum. Her interest in the corpus callosum has resulted in a paper concerning arthrogryposis as the result of partial agenesis and a highly cited paper that cast doubt on the previously held hypothesis that there was a sex-related difference in volume and appearance of the corpus callosum; regrettably, the popular belief that a larger corpus callosum accounts for “female intuition” continues to be encountered, despite this study.

Hormonal effects (sexually determined, as the result of various types of endocrinopathy, or in association with premature adrenarche) on language, cerebral dominance/ handedness, cognition, learning abilities and disabilities are considered in eight stimulating papers. One paper considers the developmental effects that may result in infants born of mothers who experienced gestational systemic lupus erythematosis.

Three papers consider the effect of brain tumors with or without associated seizures on language discrimination. Four papers consider aspects of stuttering. Single paper topics include characterization of developmental changes in complex speech and language discrimination, aphasia associated with brain abscess, and characterization of the frequency with which nonverbal learning disabilities may be detected in carefully evaluated children with verbal learning disabilities. Three papers consider attention related disturbances and hyperactivity. Twenty-eight papers have been cited more than ten times, three more than fifty times. These various studies were supported by twenty-nine prestigious grants. In addition to these peer-reviewed papers, fifty-seven excellent chapters have been written by Dr. Nass and her collaborators.

To these achievements is joined the primary reason that Dr. Nass is recognized with the First CNS Arnold P. Gold Foundation Humanism in Medicine Award. Dr. Nass learned early on from Isabelle Rapin that child neurology could at times be difficult, given the nature of abnormalities encountered in children, but that “somebody has got to do it.” That kind of resilience, mixed with the thoughtfulness, perspective, and compassion that mentors such as Dr. Rapin exemplified have been essential elements in Dr. Nass’ career and in her impact on those she has trained. Her extraordinary level of commitment to children and their families is exemplified by a drive once taken to the home of an autistic child who died drowning in his bathtub to provide much needed and welcomed comfort to the family. She is available by telephone for emergency medical and moral support for many children and their families, even at times when those responsibilities might be cross-covered by colleagues. She values the continuity of care that this provides as certainly do those children and families. Her devotion to her job has included taking pleasure in hearing from time to time by way of email the everyday happenings of these individuals, including their achievements. One grateful parent recently endowed a chair in Pediatric Neuropsychiatry, of which Dr. Nass is the designated recipient.

Known to many or perhaps even most of the schools and psychologists of New York, Dr. Nass has perennially been named among the Best Doctors of New York. Care is provided without distinction to wealthy and impoverished patients and families – intelligently and empathetically. She provides her patients and their families with more than a diagnosis and a plan of therapy. She provides them with emotional support, understanding, and appreciation of their qualities as individuals. She deals every day with the complex and variable aspects of human behavior, communication, and interaction that produce anxiety and disappointment. Within this context she fulfills the advice of Madame Montessori that it is our job in caring for children with special problems and special needs to “find the little embers and blow on them until they burn more brightly.”

Dr. Nass’ particular interest outside of medicine has been figure skating.