Rhode Island: A Destination For Brain Science?

Nov 27, 2013

This month, the University of Rhode Island launched a new neuroscience research institute, where researchers will focus on fighting Alzheimer’s and other diseases. It’s the fourth such program to hang out a shingle in the state. This growing community could eventually help more Rhode Islanders battle some of the most debilitating diseases.

(Neurons firing)

This is what it sounds like when you think about opening and closing your hand.

BrainGate hardware and software at work
Credit Kristin Gourlay / RIPR

The person whose neurons you’re hearing is totally paralyzed. She wants to open her hand, and her brain is sending the signals to open that hand. But she can’t. And that’s where a project called “BrainGate” comes in.

“The goal of the BrainGate project is to use a device that’s implanted in the brain and records neural signals from the part of the brain where the desire to move is encoded.”

This is John Davenport. He’s a neuroscientist and associate director of Brown University’s Institute for Brain Science. We’re on the top floor of an old Victorian on College Hill in Providence that now houses, incongruously, some of the most cutting edge brain technology in the world.

Brown Institute for Brain Science in Providence, RI.
Credit Kristin Gourlay / RIPR

Davenport is describing a rack of electronics and PCs, topped by three computer monitors flashing lines of code and brain waves. Next to all that, a disembodied robotic arm, which he demonstrates.

Together, it’s BrainGate, a system that literally translates thought into action. And it’s already on trial in a handful of people who are paralyzed or who have lost limbs. Surgeons implant a sensor in the subject’s brain. Then a giant cable connects that sensor on the top of their head to the rack of electronics. And once it’s plugged in, all the subject has to do is think about moving. Software translates those brain signals into a command to move the robotic arm. It’s groundbreaking work. But Davenport says the real innovation is the team of researchers who created BrainGate.

Brown's John Davenport operates BrainGate's robotic arm
Credit Kristin Gourlay / RIPR

“It’s really this collection of neuroscientists and engineers and neurosurgeons and neurologists and computer scientists that have worked together," said Davenport. "The transformative thing is a group of people who really identified a single problem that they all needed to work together to solve.”

And that’s what Rhode Island may have going for it: a growing and collaborative community of researchers at a growing number of institutions all trained on probing the brain’s toughest problems. Problems like Alzheimer’s and other degenerative brain diseases, which are projected to triple by the year 2050. John Davenport says Brown’s goal is not to attract more scientists just to work on Alzheimer’s disease. Rather, it’s to foster the kind of environment that lets scientists explore and make connections that could lead to breakthroughs.

“I actually joke sometimes that the best thing we could ever do is host cocktail parties. Because a lot of it is making sure the accidental collisions take place," Davenport said. Then he paused. "I guess that’s sort of a bad analogy in the context of a cocktail party!”

Joking aside, there’s more opportunity for those kinds of accidental collisions than ever right now in Rhode Island. At the other end of the state, the University of Rhode Island just unveiled the $15 million dollar Ryan Institute for Neuroscience. URI brings some new expertise to the brain party in pharmacy and engineering, like that of neuroscientist Nasser Zawia, who’s working on a drug to prevent Alzheimer’s. After URI’s big announcement, Zawia was brimming with hope for the future – of being able to collaborate with researchers at other institutions and ultimately help shorten the path to treatment.

“When people speak about cancer, they know to go to Dana Farber in Boston or MD Anderson in Houston or they can go to New York. But when you speak with someone that has Alzheimer's, there isn’t a state or a city that jumps into mind, or a specific hospital," said Zawia. "It’s very distributed. So if we get our act together in Rhode Island, maybe we can become that destination.”

How? Well, Zawia says multiple institutions pooling their resources sometimes have a better chance of scoring big grants than they would going it alone.  And he says some joint proposals are already in the works, like one to study epilepsy. Zawia says he hopes to collaborate with researchers at yet another relatively new spot on Rhode Island’s brain map: the Norman Prince Neuroscience Institute at Rhode Island Hospital. It’s considered the clinical arm of the Brown brain institute, the place where research makes the leap from the lab to the bedside. Along with the Providence VA and other hospitals, these institutions are finding ways to supercharge their efforts by working together.

Dr. John Robson helps run both the Norman Prince and the Brown institutes. He says those efforts could pay off for Rhode Islanders suffering from a range of brain disorders, from depression to epilepsy to Parkinsons.

Dr. John Robson holds a leadership position at both the Normal Prince Neuroscience Institute at Rhode Island Hospital and the Brown Institute for Brain Science.
Credit Kristin Gourlay / RIPR

“If you’re the ones involved with developing the technology and participating in the clinical trials, you’re also going to be the ones who are going to be the most advanced at providing the care to the patients when it becomes approved," said Robson. "It’s like any other medical procedure you hear over and over again: the places that do it the most are the ones that tend to do it the best, because practice makes perfect.”

And right now, the people developing those technologies and launching those clinical trials are scattered throughout the state. But Robson has a vision for the future:

“That we’ll have somehow gotten our community together physically. I don’t really know how that’s going to take shape but this is certainly what many of us would like to see happen," he said.

Robson says that could help create the conditions for more of those accidental collisions to occur, for scientists and doctors and engineers to compare notes and find new, interdisciplinary approaches to common problems. Whether that means a brand new building, Robson says he isn’t sure. But he says he is sure that blurring the lines between institutions enables researchers to collaborate more effectively. That will take some investment. But that investment could also pay off, not only in new treatments, but in new businesses, in newly recruited arrivals spending their salaries in Rhode Island.

And governments and businesses are taking notice. Earlier this year, President Obama announced his administration’s commitment to a major new brain research initiative.

“The concept that we’ve been exploring for some time is to make Rhode Island a national center for excellence in brain science."

Locally, Providence Greater Chamber of Commerce president Laurie White challenged the state senate to find ways to boost Rhode Island’s reputation in neuroscience.

"And we think that we have all the component parts here necessary," said White. "So we have outstanding academic institutions, the universities, colleges, hospitals, and industry support to keep brain science alive.”

State lawmakers responded by creating a health sciences committee to investigate the opportunity, like whether to offer incentives for brain science start-ups to move into Rhode Island.

But some brain scientists get a little nervous about any expectation that their work will be a kind of economic savior for the state. Let us do our work, they say, and see where it takes us.