Updated March 23 at 6:25am

Providence seen as potential hub for brain research


When the Brown University researchers who formed BrainGate Co. enabled a paralyzed woman to operate a robotic arm through thought, scientists around the world heard about the breakthrough developed in Providence.

It was the latest success to burnish the area’s reputation in the growing field of brain-science research, a field Rhode Island leaders hope will lead the state’s transition toward a technology and knowledge-based economy.

Exactly how big an economic engine brain-science research will eventually become in Providence is difficult to say, but the optimism among leaders in the medical, academic and business communities is still growing.

“All the pieces are there to put something substantial into the marketplace,” said Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce President Laurie White, a leading proponent of expansion in the medical and education sector. “And with brain science – especially with the diseases baby boomers are dealing with - what could be more appropriate? It’s the last frontier.”

At the center of plans to grow Providence into a world-class research hub is the collaborative effort between the major brain-science research centers in the state – especially those from Rhode Island Hospital and the Brown Institute for Brain Science.

That process leapt forward two years ago with the founding of the Norman Prince Neurosciences Institute at Rhode Island Hospital, which is designed to bring together clinicians and researchers from Brown, the Warren Alpert Medical School, the Providence Veterans Administration Medical Center, Bradley Hospital, Butler Hospital, Hasbro Children’s Hospital and Rhode Island Hospital.

“What we are trying to do is meld the two efforts into a joint initiative,” said John Robson, administrative director at the Norman Prince Institute. “It is still new, but we are developing programs to stimulate joint-research projects between clinicians and scientists and get funds for pilot research studies.”

In addition to bringing together different organizations researching the brain, the Norman Prince and Brown institutes link traditionally independent fields – neurology, neurosurgery and psychiatry.

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