Science & Research

Brain science at forefront of Brown scholarship priorities

Brain science, emphasized on campus for decades, one of seven scholarship foci in strategic plan

Senior Staff Writer
Thursday, October 20, 2016

For years, the University has been home to scholars and students pursuing innovative approaches to research and pedagogy on brain science.

One could say the brain is an interdisciplinary organ. When visual stimuli arrive, little does the occipital lobe care that it is distinct in name and function from the frontal lobe. It relies on its front-brained counterpart to kickstart the needed response.

One could also say, then, that Brown takes after the brain, valuing not just the development of individual hubs but also the constant evolution of networks connecting them. According to the researchers driving Brown’s exploration of the brain, Brown does brain science better than most because it builds networks better than most.

“What does it take to really come to grips with how the brain works? What happens when the brain doesn’t work?” asked Justin Fallon, co-director of the Center for Neurobiology of Cells and Circuits and professor of medical science, psychiatry and human behavior. “These are questions that require many disciplines to be brought to bear. And what’s the one thing that Brown does better than anybody? It’s our multidisciplinary approach to brain science.”

Thirty years ago, Professor of Science and Director of the Institute for Brain and Neural Systems Leon Cooper, already armed with the 1972 Nobel Prize in Physics, set out to apply his understanding of that discipline to the workings of the brain. His students spent lunchtimes discussing neural networks and superconductivity, planting the seeds of a pioneering theory of synaptic plasticity — and of a Brown program in neuroscience.

In the ensuing decades, scholars here have pushed the University to the forefront of brain science, developing methods to map neurons, discovering how brain functions mature during development and investigating the causes of devastating neurodegenerative diseases. In the classic paradox of gains in knowledge, everything we come to understand about the brain suggests how much remains unknown. But Brown has committed itself to this exploration, placing neuroscience at the core of its academic identity.

Building on distinction

“Building on Distinction,” the University’s 10-year strategic plan launched in 2014, lists “Understanding the Human Brain” among seven themes of scholarship to be emphasized and invested in under President Christina Paxson’s P’19 administration. This designation is more than just a recognition of what is; it has implications for what Brown will become, said Provost Richard Locke P’17.

Locke began visiting Brown on a regular basis in spring 2013, when groups of faculty and staff members were winnowing the many proposals for integrative themes down into a final list.  “They were asking two questions,” Locke said. “What are we doing that’s already excellent? … And secondly, if we made targeted investments, how would they take us to the next level?”

The plan identifies the units that will be responsible for conducting brain science research: the Brown Institute for Brain Science, various academic departments and the University’s hospital partners. It also lays out plans to invest in faculty positions, research infrastructure and new space in the Jewelry District, and it details the impact these investments will have — doubling the number of multi-investigator grants in five years and creating a computational neuroscience program, in addition to other goals.

The University’s ambitions could not be realized without these investments. For one, the recruitment and retention of top faculty members is predicated on strong infrastructure for research. For example, the prominence afforded to BIBS allowed it to acquire magnetic resonance imaging machinery, which is now used by between 25 and 30 research groups, said Jerome Sanes, professor of neuroscience and director of the MRI Research Facility.

The MRI technology has also allowed long-time faculty members, such as Sheila Blumstein, professor of cognitive, linguistic and psychological sciences, to open up new lines of research, Blumstein said.

Increased investment also provides funding for pilot projects. Researchers can use University funding to generate preliminary data, which they can then bring to the National Institutes of Health and other granting bodies to secure funding for broader projects, said Diane Lipscombe, director of BIBS and professor of neuroscience.

The prominent position of brain science in the plan is both a reflection and progenitor of academic curiosity, exhorting students and researchers across departments to explore the brain at Brown. “The fact that (understanding the human brain) is in the plan is wonderful because there is nothing more interdisciplinary than thinking about how humans think,” said Dima Amso, associate professor of CLPS. “It defines us as humans.”

Distinctive collaboration

The research faculty members, graduate students and undergraduates conduct on brain science has a home on campus in BIBS.

“We’re very excited to be part of the campaign,” Lipscombe said. “Now, because we are in a privileged position, there is a responsibility that goes along with that and a great opportunity to engage a broader group within the community.”

Lipscombe has her sights set on a definition of community that spans the entire campus. She is in conversation with Joseph Rovan, director of the Brown Arts Initiative and professor of music, about “doing something collaborative between brain science and the arts,” and Jeff Brock, director of the Data Science Initiative and professor and chair of mathematics, about developing projects that capitalize on the “wonderful parallels” between research on brain science and computational science.

The bridges Lipscombe is trying to build across campus already characterize BIBS. “I am amazed that I go around the table and people are from surgery, linguistics, applied math, computer science (and) mechanical engineering, and they are all working on similar problems,” Locke said.

BIBS was launched in 1999 as the Brain Science Program when founding director John Donoghue went to then-President Gordon Gee and proposed a center that would provide scaffolding for discourse across disciplines. “We used to talk about how we could realize the most out of what Brown is and what Brown can be,” said Michael Paradiso, professor of opthamology, visual science and neuroscience. “John was a visionary in seeing that you can do more if you bring people together.”

Blumstein, then interim provost, told Gee she thought the idea was a “no-brainer.” And with that, the center was formed, marking the birth of “a much broader University approach” to brain science — an approach former President Ruth Simmons and now Paxson have built on, Blumstein said.

The collaboration fostered by BIBS has expanded the horizons of Amso’s work. For example, she has worked with researchers specializing in animal development to understand aging in humans.

This collaboration does not stop at the laboratory door. Amso and Associate Professor of CLPS David Badre have worked together to examine how socioeconomic status among schoolchildren in the state of Rhode Island shapes the prefrontal cortex and executive functions. Nor does collaboration stop at the brain science boundary. Last year, Amso and colleagues from the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs spent 10 days in Jordan learning about the stressors faced by refugee children in order to inform nonprofits treating the children.

The potential for this sort of collaboration is, like strong research infrastructure, a critical factor in recruiting faculty members to Brown, Locke said. The University aims to attract faculty members eager to be part of a “larger community that cuts across disciplines,” he added.

“Quite frankly, looking at a question with one eye is not going to solve the problem,” said Blumstein. “And that’s where Brown is ahead of the game — because it happens so naturally here.”

Part of the reason collaboration happens so naturally is the role played by undergraduates, Fallon said.

‘Agents of interaction’

“Undergrads are the agents of interaction,” Fallon said. “They know different things and different people. They take diverse classes and bring ideas to us.”

For many undergraduates involved in brain science research, the path starts with NEUR 0010: “The Brain: An Introduction to Neuroscience.” Though only 292 students are currently enrolled in NEUR 0010, known colloquially as ‘Neuro one,’ the number has hovered around 400 for the past few years, Paradiso said. This would mean around one quarter of Brown undergraduates has taken the course at some point in their academic careers.

“Neuro one is just fantastic,” said Paradiso, one of the two professors teaching the course this semester. “Students ask remarkably good questions, which is related to the fact that it’s such a young field. One of the reasons I got into neuroscience was that in physics, you feel like you do have to dig very deeply into the theory … to find the current state of understanding of something. But in the first week of Neuro one, people ask deep questions, (and) we have no clue what the answer is.”

Paradiso has been teaching NEUR 0010 since he arrived at Brown as a professor in 1990. He wants the course to be accessible to any undergraduate. That’s part of the reason he, along with Professor of Medical Science and Neuroscience Chair Barry Connors and former colleague Mark Bear, wrote the textbook used in the course, he said.

“The impetus for writing the book reflects transition in the field. The books that were around in the ’90s were geared toward a more advanced bio(logy) student learning neurobiology,” Paradiso said. “We didn’t want that. You can teach neuroscience to anybody. You just have to do a little background.”

Brown was one of the first universities to offer an undergraduate neuroscience concentration, the first to use a purely undergraduate textbook and a pioneer in exposing students to the breadth of neuroscience as soon as their first year. For all of these reasons, Brown was and “still remains the gold standard for how to develop a curriculum to teach undergraduates the wonders of the brain,” Lipscombe said.

The fact that all faculty members are required to teach undergraduates — one of Brown’s distinguishing features — plays a key role in faculty recruitment, Locke said.

Locke taught relatively few undergraduate courses in his 25 years at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he said. “And what’s great about Brown is that though I would never want to do that, I would never be able to do that here. That’s a selling point for us.”

Locke cites the hiring of Gilad Barnea, associate professor of neuroscience, as an example. “He’s a real rising star, and we were able to hold onto him. And he says that one of the things he found so special about Brown is being able to work with the undergrads,” who participate vigorously in both courses and research.

Mackenzie Woodburn ’17 is one such undergraduate who has delved deeply into brain science research on campus. Having conducted research in the Advanced Baby Imaging Lab, he is now proposing a novel theory about the functional connectivity of the developing brain for his senior thesis.

But in the legacy of undergraduates driving change, Woodburn has applied his energies beyond the classroom and the lab. Asserting that “neuroscience is such a pillar at Brown” but sometimes fails to reach communities beyond the Ivory Tower, he has thrown himself into the leadership of the Brown Brain Bee.

The bee provides neuroscience lessons and competitions to local high schoolers. Woodburn also helped organize the first-ever Brown Brain Fair in March 2015 in collaboration with Carin Papendorp ’17, a Herald opinions columnist.

Like a kid again

BIBS is home to over 100 faculty members who collectively boast hundreds of academic degrees, thousands of peer-reviewed publications and millions of dollars in NIH money. Yet ask any of the faculty members or the students who work under them what most excites them about the brain, and the years of formal training, grant-seeking and paper-producing fade away.

In their place is the unadulterated awe that the brain has the singular ability — perhaps along with questions of black holes or the origins of the universe — to elicit in us all. What is a thought? What is the basis of consciousness? Is the mind powerful enough to understand how the mind works, or will the 3-pound globs of Jell-o that erected the pyramids and sent man to the moon forever remain enigmas?

Such are the questions that underlie the buttoned-up language of “Building on Distinction” and labeled diagrams of peer-reviewed journals; such are the questions that drive BIBS researchers — and thus drive Brown research. 

There’s Blumstein, who has spent more than 40 years at Brown in pursuit of the mechanisms of language. “What does studying the brain and language tell us about language? And how can we use that knowledge to get a better understanding of folks who have these language problems? How’s it going to help somebody?”

There’s Lipscombe, whose unbridled curiosity about the brain matches her eagerness to connect brain science to initiatives across campus — and belies the gravity of her job as BIBS director. “If you look to each brain, you can’t see what the difference is. But all of our experiences are stored there, and depending on the context, you are going to react completely differently. That is extraordinary.”

Fallon is taken by the “alchemy” of memory formation, Amso by the rapid change from incapable babies to socialized toddlers and Sanes by the basis of conscious behavior.

Locke is not spared the curiosity. “Two things — I really want to understand better what’s going on with Alzheimer’s and dementia,” Locke said. “And what makes us human? What makes us different? What makes us reflect and not simply respond to stimulus?”

“The mind boggles the mind,” Paradiso said. “You start with systems in the brain that take physical energy and convert it into an electrical response. Then the brain somehow creates a new internal world of its own. That to me is magic. It’s amazing — I don’t know how it works. I think it’ll keep us busy for quite a while.”

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