UK Neurology Professor Works on TV Show "Prodigal Son"

Timothy Ainger, PhD, had just completed a 10-hour clinic day when he pulled out his cellphone to check his messages. There were 74 in total, which was pretty typical because he was involved in group chats with his pals, as well as a Fantasy Football league. However, amid those messages were 14 notifications from his wife, Jan.

At first, he panicked. But it turned out to be quite the opposite of bad news. At home, the couple’s children were jumping up and down with excitement. His wife had just learned that Dr. Ainger had been hired for what he now calls “one of the coolest things I’ve ever been able to do.”

Dr. Ainger, assistant professor of neurology in the University of Kentucky College of Medicine, utilizes his years of clinical expertise as a consultant on “Prodigal Son,” a television series on FOX that premiered in September 2019. It centers on Malcolm Bright, the son of a serial killer who works through his past traumatic experiences, and as a criminal psychologist, uses his rare insight to help detectives solve high-profile cases. As a consultant Dr. Ainger receives episode scripts in advance and provides feedback on scenes featuring forensic and neuropsychological information, working to ensure accuracy and enhance the final product.

“There was a moment when everything clicked, that I have this weird set of skills that nobody cares about, and the producers of this show actually want it,” he said with a laugh.

For example, he has explained to producers how certain doses of drugs affect the brain and the body, what a training program in psychology would look like, and how the body responds to various triggers. “There is so much information encapsulated into 30 seconds of dialogue,” he said.

Though an assistant professor of neurology at UK, Dr. Ainger is not a neurologist. And he’s not strictly a psychologist either. His field, as he calls it, is a marriage of both aspects. He holds a doctorate in clinical psychology and completed his postdoctoral fellowship training in clinical neuropsychology. His work at UK, along with educating students, involves studying the relationship between the brain and the body’s behavior. His research and work has covered a vast range of areas and diseases including epilepsy, dementia, schizophrenia, PTSD, forensics, and multiple sclerosis.

“What I tell the residents and medical students is that a psychologist may be able to tell you about affective, emotional concerns, and personality functioning, and a neurologist would look at an MRI and say, ‘Here’s the lesion,’ or ‘Here’s a tumor,’” he said. “We get to have a foot in both camps and say, ‘This lesion, this tumor, this structural change may manifest as a change in your ability to do this, this, and this.’”

“Prodigal Son” also aligns with a hodge-podge of other experiences Dr. Ainger had before working at UK. When he was 16 years old, he served as a volunteer firefighter in the Washington, D.C. area, and he was a first responder two years later when the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks occurred at the Pentagon. He later landed a role with the Department of Justice. Through these roles he gained connections that ultimately brought him to the show. But he also developed a familiarity to witnessing various traumatic situations, allowing him to think clearly, not fearfully, when providing feedback for the series, which features graphic content.

The show, which airs Mondays at 9 p.m., has given Dr. Ainger and his wife a weekly routine. After putting their kids to bed, they’ll watch an episode, and Jan will act as a detective, attempting to pinpoint what scenes included her husband’s advice. At the more suspenseful parts and the cliffhangers at the end of episodes, she’ll turn to him, going back on forth on whether she wants to hear what happens next – knowing that he can’t tell her anyway, and agonizingly, she’ll have to wait for the next week’s episode to find out. 

Working on the show is an experience that has not only given Dr. Ainger a cool story to share with his colleagues – and an IMDB page – but also an interest in consulting. If the show is picked up for a second season, he says he’d be happy to continue.

“The writers and producers put together a real quality piece of work,” he said, “and hopefully I was able to enhance it.”

The show is still in the second half of its first season on FOX. Episodes are also available on Hulu.