Fostering diverse approaches to understanding brain function

Transformational new support for The Carney Institute for Brain Science is accelerating innovation and translational research into vital aspects of the human brain.

How do humans store and retrieve a lifetime of memories, recognize faces they’ve seen before, and communicate effectively with one another? Can we create artificial intelligence that truly mimics these abilities? How can we best address behavioral disorders and neurodegenerative diseases? A new $25 million gift to Brown will help researchers at the University’s Robert J. and Nancy D. Carney Institute for Brain Science explore these and many other questions pertaining to brain function.

The generous gift from an anonymous donor will support research in computational brain science, enabling Brown to attract and retain world-class teachers and scholars. It will also endow an innovation awards program at the institute that will provide seed funding for emerging high-impact research in computation and other areas of brain science.

“This transformational gift recognizes the momentum that continues to build at Brown University, where our talented faculty are leading scientific discovery, including in the rapidly emerging specialty of computational brain science,” said Diane Lipscombe, director of the Carney Institute and a professor of neuroscience. “This gift will allow us to sustain a culture of innovation, which has led to an impressive number of discoveries and returned countless new grants to Brown that forge new areas of research.”

With more than 180 affiliated faculty members in 20 units and eight affiliated graduate programs, the Carney Institute is pursuing research that has real-life, human applications, Lipscombe said. Core areas of research include:

  • investigation of cognition, behavior, and mood disorders;
  • novel technologies to interface with the brain and restore lost functions; and
  • advanced knowledge about the mechanisms of cell death to identify therapies for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases.

This gift is part of the University’s $3 billion BrownTogether campaign, which has raised $2.74 billion to date. It builds upon significant philanthropic investment in Brown’s cutting-edge work in brain science — of the total contributed by donors to date, more than $187 million has been raised to support research and education in brain science, including the $100 million gift that named the institute in 2018.

Launching bold ideas

In 2014, the Carney Institute launched an innovation awards program to support early-stage research projects that are too new to attract external funding but have great potential to advance science and benefit society. The most recent gift will endow a similar innovation awards program, ensuring that the Carney Institute will be able to sustainably invest in innovation for years to come.

Ashley Webb—the Richard and Edna Salomon Assistant Professor of Molecular Biology, Cell Biology and Biochemistry at Brown—received an innovation award in 2019 to establish a new system to study how neurons age. She is developing a cell reprogramming platform, called “direct reprogramming,” to study aging in the hypothalamus brain region. The hypothalamus controls critical processes, such as sleep, temperature regulation, eating and metabolism, which can become dysregulated with aging. With direct reprogramming, Webb is able to convert a skin cell, for example, into a brain cell that maintains the hallmarks of aging.

“Aging is the greatest risk factor for a number of diseases, including neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s,” Webb said. “If we understand what’s going wrong during aging, this will give us important insight into the mechanisms of disease. But right now, we don’t have very good systems for studying these diseases in the context of aging. This is the problem we are working to solve.”

Webb’s group started with mouse skin cells to generate rare hypothalamic brain cells. They are now applying the same approach to human cells, which for the first time will allow researchers to generate rare types of human neurons that are physiologically aged.

The Innovation Awards Program, Webb said, gave her group the freedom to take on a bold, early-stage idea. Her team hopes to use the direct reprogramming approach to generate neurons from individuals with brain diseases and disorders, such as Alzheimer’s.

“High-risk projects have the most potential to lead to breakthroughs in science and medicine, but funding mechanisms for this type of work are limited,” Webb said. “The Innovation Awards Program allowed us to pursue an exciting idea that wouldn’t have been funded by traditional funding mechanisms because they favor safe, well-established projects that often result in incremental advances.”

Gilad Barnea, director of the Center for the Neurobiology of Cells and Circuits at the Carney Institute, was an early recipient of an innovation award, which he said was critical to the success of his project. He developed “trans-Tango” technology to map functional brain circuits that control behaviors.

“The innovation award enabled us to cross the finish line with our work in the lab, so we could publish our findings in Neuron, one of the premier scientific journals in neuroscience,” he said.

Barnea’s published research — which was highly collaborative and involved undergraduate and graduate students as well as postdoctoral fellows — opens opportunities to study specific circuits and how they become abnormal in disease. Barnea has distributed the components of his system to many laboratories worldwide, and more than 100 papers have been published using “trans-Tango.” His group has secured external funding to continue to develop the technique to study the brain and to develop a similar technique to study cancer and the immune system.

Promoting computational brain science at Brown

A portion of the new $25 million gift will also be used to strengthen Brown’s leadership in the emerging field of computational neuroscience. Last summer, Brown established the Center for Computational Brain Science at the institute to harness the University’s expertise in computation, cognition and systems neuroscience.

“There have been a number of truly fabulous moments in Carney’s history, and the formation of the Center for Computational Brain Science is among the most meaningful,” Lipscombe said.

Computational neuroscience is a multidisciplinary field that seeks to understand the functions of the brain at all levels — from cells to cognition — using principles from physics, mathematics, engineering, computer science, biology, cognitive science and psychology. The center creates collaborations between basic brain science researchers and engineers, mathematicians and computer scientists, and brings computational neuroscience innovations to clinical applications and commercialization.

“The gift to computational brain science is incredibly impactful,” Lipscombe said. “It ensures that we are able to continue driving scientific discovery and supporting cutting-edge research that spans multiple fields of study.”

According to Michael Frank — director of the Center for Computational Brain Science and the recent recipient of the National Academy of Sciences’ Troland Award for early-career researchers — the gift is a statement of support, confidence, and appreciation for the contributions of computational neuroscientists at Brown.

“It will expand the scope with which brain scientists can leverage powerful computational methods to understand neural mechanisms of complex behavior; to learn from, and reciprocally inspire, development in artificial intelligence; and to facilitate translation to improve brain health,” he said.

This story was adapted from one that originally appeared on