URI to offer interdisciplinary graduate neuroscience program

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KINGSTON, R.I. – July 5, 2011 – Imagine a network with a trillion phones and imagine that each phone can make or receive 2,000 calls at the same time. Now multiply those transactions by another trillion.

This gives you a limited idea of the complexity and vast processing power of the human brain and its neurons. The University of Rhode Island has joined the global quest to understand the most remarkable human organ by launching graduate programs in neuroscience.

URI’s Interdisciplinary Neuroscience Program will offer a master of science and doctor of philosophy degrees in neuroscience with the goal of educating scientists and professors who can contribute to private and public sector research.

The potential growth in the development of the $10 billion-a-year neuro-device industry is expected to increase 22 percent annually, according to the proposal for the new URI programs. To date, Rhode Island has very little impact in the bio-device arena. The new URI neuroscience program will develop researchers/entrepreneurs who could enter this field.

The University already has 32 professors/researchers doing neuroscience work in their specific areas, and so no additional funding is needed for faculty.

“We have built a network of 15 departments at URI in which people are focusing on neuroscience. We have many talented researchers in more than eight different disciplines working in this field,” said Nasser Zawia, dean of URI’s Graduate School. “We already offer 26 courses in the neurosciences in the following major areas: biological sciences, biomedical engineering, molecular and cell biology, physical therapy, pharmacy and psychology,” said Zawia, also a biomedical scientist in the College of Pharmacy who is researching the link between childhood lead exposure and Alzheimer’s disease. “Physics, chemistry, engineering, computer science are just a few of the disciplines helping to answer questions about brain function and brain diseases.”

The program, which was approved Monday, June 27, by the Rhode Island Board of Governors for Higher Education, will also produce researchers who will be able to focus on some of the most debilitating brain disorders, such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s disease) schizophrenia and other mental illnesses.

Walt Besio, associate professor of biomedical engineering and co-coordinator of the program, has invented a new electrode that can enhance detection of epileptic seizures and then treat them by injecting weak currents into the scalp. Besio is one of many URI professors who have been conducting neuroscience research for years.

“When I started here in 2008, I realized I needed people with a strong biology background for my research,” Besio said. “Nasser (Zawia) was the only one I could find who would be able to assist my research. Then, he and I started searching informally for people conducting neuroscience research at URI. We were surprised when we learned how many researchers at URI were focusing on this area. In fact, we may have many more than many schools that do not have a medical school. We’re in disparate disciplines, but now we are linked through these graduate programs.

“One aspect that sets our interdisciplinary neuroscience program apart from others is the strong participation from engineering,” Besio said. “Nearly half of the participating faculty members are engineers performing neural engineering. We also have a sequence of neural engineering courses taught by the biomedical engineering faculty.”

Besio said the graduate programs would only serve to enhance the collaborative nature of the research. “I have collaborations with Rhode Island Hospital, Hasbro Children’s Hospital, Massachusetts General Hospital, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston and the Georgetown University School of Medicine. But those collaborations are for clinical applications. I need basic science collaborators as well. We’d like to continue those, but also build collaborations at URI.”

Besio added that participation in the graduate programs in neuroscience is not limited to the initial disciplines and faculty members listed in the proposal. “If an English or philosophy professor is looking at the ethics of brain research, he or she could become part of this program. Nursing would also be very much welcomed, given nurses’ key role in patient care.”

Zawia said neuroscience is one of the last scientific frontiers where fundamental discoveries can still be made, especially with the influx of new techniques, including deep-brain stimulation, brain imaging, genomics (the mapping and sequencing of genes) and proteomics (the analysis of the structure, function, and interactions of the proteins produced by the genes of a particular cell, tissue, or organism).

Zawia said the program will educate researchers who will be able to focus on Alzheimer’s Disease, which affects an estimated 5,000 Rhode Islanders, mental illness, which affects thousands of others and drug addiction.

“In addition, treatment of mental illness is a robust area for drug development, which provides economic opportunities for our state’s biotechnology and biopharmaceutical industry,” Zawia said.

Gabriele Kass-Simon, a professor in the Department of Biological Sciences in the College of the Environment and Life Sciences, has been teaching neurobiology courses at URI since mid-1970s.

Kass-Simon, who co-chaired the committee that developed the program, said that to make the program truly interdisciplinary, students in the master’s program will take a year-long introductory course, with the first semester being team taught by professors from engineering, psychology, microbiology, biology, pharmacy and physical therapy. The second semester will focus on cellular and membrane neurobiology.

“At the end of the first year, students will have a solid background, which will then allow them to seek out specialized aspects of the field,” Kass-Simon said. “It will give them great exposure to a very large menu of choices.”

Kass-Simon said the program also includes an annual colloquium that will bring top names in the neurosciences to speak at the Kingston Campus.

Zawia said the URI program will work with the Brown University neurosciences program and the Rhode Island Hospital Neuroscience Institute.

“At the same time, the student who wants to obtain a graduate degree in engineering can still earn that degree, but she can add a certification in neuroscience,” Zawia said.

“A student could be interested in art, language or music and how the brain works in those areas, particularly as the fine and performing arts relate to stress reduction, healing, creative development and even language development,” Zawia said. “Now we have this network at URI that will lead to even more opportunities.

“Brown is very interested in working with us because while it has a medical school, it does not have a college of pharmacy,” Zawia said. “Faculty in the College of Pharmacy are experts in drug development and interactions, the use of drugs to treat mental illness and the side effects of drugs that could compromise a person’s brain health or even exacerbate a mental illness.”

For the fall semester, the University will accept three to five students in the program, with capacity available to accommodate growth.