Research Engine

$100M gift to Brown hailed as lifeblood driving innovation, discovery in brain science

Generous gift by Carneys will enable Brown to invest in research, talent and infrastructure as a national hub of neuroscience research

Photo courtesy of Brown University

Diane Lipscombe, director of the Carney Institute for Brain Science at Brown University.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 4/23/18
The gift of $100 million to further the work of the Carney Institute for Brain Science at Brown promises to be a transformative moment for neuroscience and the academic medical research enterprise in Rhode Island.
Is there a way to tamp down political expectations around the potential for immediate job growth as a result of the investment in neuroscience at Brown? How will the $100 million gift to Brown reshape the thinking around translational research and the academic medical research enterprise as envisioned by the life sciences focus of the new Wexford Innovation Complex? As the state begins to look at the kinds of investment needed in high schools to renovate science labs, what kinds of opportunities are there for neuroscience to become part of the equation? Beyond the focus on therapeutic targets for chronic diseases, are there public health interventions around reducing toxic stress and improving pain management, and creating innovative approaches to violence that need to become of the conversation?
Since David Orenstein left his position in December of 2017 in communications covering life sciences at Brown to take a position at MIT, his position has not been filled. From the news perspective, Orenstein often provided a valuable link to the ongoing activities and research of Brown faculty members, covering complicated and complex topics and facilitating access to researchers. Perhaps with the announcement of the new $100 million gift, Brown will accelerate its efforts to be able to find a replacement for Orenstein in the communications department.

PROVIDENCE – The $100 million gift to the brain science institute at Brown University by Robert J. Carney and Nancy D. Carney promises to be transformative, driving an ambitious agenda to quicken the pace of scientific discovery and help find cures to some of the world’s most persistent and devastating diseases, such as ALS and Alzheimer’s, according to the news release accompanying the announcement of the gift.

From a practical standpoint, the new gift means that the newly named Carney Institute for Brain Science, which will soon move to its new location at 164 Angell St., will be able to accelerate the hiring of leading faculty and postdoctoral scholars in neuroscience, create seed funding for new research, and invest in new equipment and infrastructure in the technology-driven areas of scientific exploration.

Translated, the generous gift by the Carneys will enable Brown to invest in new research, attract new talent and build out its technology infrastructure, increasing the school’s reputation as a national hub of neuroscience research.

While the brain science institute at Brown has attracted much notoriety for its work on BrainGate, to help people overcome the damage from severe strokes by engineering alternative pathways for signaling through a brain-computer interface, many of the current research efforts focus on translational research initiatives, such as the work by Robert Reenan.

Reenan has engineered ALS-causing genetic mutations in fruit flies, in efforts to identify and replicate what is known as the “suppressor gene” that mitigates the harmful effects of the gene, with the goal to research “small molecule” compounds that can pharmacologically achieve similarly beneficial effects in the ALS flies.

As Diane Lipscombe, the director of the Carney Institute for Brain Science as well as president-elect of the Society for Neuroscience, the field’s international professional organization, told ConvergenceRI in an email following the announcement of the $100 million gift: “Rob [Reenan] is part of a team project funded by ALS Finding a Cure and coordinated by the Carney Institute, which includes myself, Rob, three other principal investigators at Brown and labs at UMass and Massachusetts General Hospital.”

In describing the work at the Carney Institute for Brain Science in an article published by Brown University news, Lipscombe said: “To understand the human brain is, for me and for many of my colleagues, the final frontier. We’re in an incredible moment in time right now in brain science. The time is now. There is no time to wait.”

Lipscombe continued: “Brown is a unique and special place, regardless of what your interest is in the brain. So, if you’re interested in building machines that mimic the brain, this is the place to do that, because our engineers are working very closely with neuroscientists. We don’t see boundaries; we just see our colleagues and we don’t care where they are, we don’t care what department they’re in. There are literally no boundaries for working across disciplines, which is where the exciting things happen, at that interface between engineering and neuroscience, or applied math and engineering, computer science and neuroscience, or cognitive linguistics and neuroscience.”

Can you say bioluminescent optogenetics?
Christopher Moore, who is the associate director of the Carney Institute for Brain Science, received a grant from the National Science Foundation to create a national research hub for training students in the tools and techniques of bioluminescent optogenetics, or BL-OG.

The research enterprise involves Moore, Lipscombe, and two other principal investigators, one from Central Michigan University and one from the Scintillon Institute in San Diego.

“Brain science is inherently a question, not a discipline,” explained Moore, in an article published by Brown University News. “Brain science inherently has to be opportunistic and go to whatever demand the question demands. That’s exactly what [we] support – that ability to be agile in allowing people to go to places they didn’t know the research would take them.”

The students at Brown in neurosciences, Moore continued, “tend to be the kind of students that like to go across borders. They like to live between labs; they like to learn some math, bring the math back to the experimental lab and vice versa. They tend to be exactly the kind of students that want to take the right kind of risks.”

The biggest questions are often around communications, Moore said. “How do you get to talk to people that don’t do exactly what you do? You need an environment that supports that. Brown not only has people that are really, really smart colleagues, but they’re actually collegial. They want to talk. They want you in the same room. They want to deal with half-baked ideas and make them fully baked.”

One of the unanswered questions about the new prominence of the Carney Institute for Brain Science at Brown are the specific ways that it will interact and collaborate with the University of Rhode Island and its Ryan Institute for Neurosciences, which has developed an innovative relationship with MindImmune, a for-profit drug discovery firm researching new approaches to therapeutic targets for Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, looking at inflammation and the brain’s own immune system.

As much as economic development officials often talk about the need for a Rhode Island-focused academic research enterprise and building an innovation ecosystem here in Rhode Island, the new investment of $100 million in funds at the Carney Institute for Brain Science elevates that conversation to a new level.

“This is a signal moment when scientists around the world are poised to solve some of the most important puzzles of the human brain,” said Brown University President Christina Paxson, in the news release accompanying the announcement of the $100 million gift by the Carneys.

It may also prove to be a signal moment for the way that the future academic research enterprise is defined in Rhode Island, perhaps a bit differently than what state economic development officials may be promoting.


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