Improving mental health through computational neuroscience

The Carney Institute’s new BRAINSTORM program is bridging the gap between basic brain science research and clinical applications for mental well-being.

Researchers at Brown University’s Robert J. and Nancy D. Carney Institute for Brain Science are continuously seeking a better understanding of the computational power of the human brain. But what happens to the insights they gain from each study? How can these discoveries be put to use more rapidly to help patients?

The BRAINSTORM program in the Center for Computational Brain Science (CCBS) at Carney strives to answer these questions. The program is designed to enable the advancement of early-stage projects and ideas with the potential for commercialization or broader adoption by the scientific community and industry.

Brown is home to leading researchers in computational neuroscience, world leaders in artificial intelligence, and physician-scientists using cutting-edge computational approaches to understand the mechanisms underlying complex disorders. The University is also located in the heart of the Boston/Providence biomedical, medical technology, and start-up ecosystem — an ideal launching pad for translational efforts in science.

With these strengths in place, the BRAINSTORM program aims to address an acknowledged chasm between academia and industry in an area of research where computational modeling and machine learning techniques could lead to improved diagnosis and treatment of mental illness.

“We wanted to create a program that would attract innovative and creative researchers to work on problems relevant to brain health, which could translate into concrete solutions, including potential for commercialization,” says Michael Frank, professor of cognitive, linguistic and psychological sciences and director of the CCBS. 

Frank says donors to the Carney Institute have been instrumental in getting the program off the ground. Prior gifts enabled Carney to recruit Frederike Petzschner from the ETH and University of Zurich to conduct research on chronic pain using a neuroscientific mobile application called SOMA, as well as to develop the BRAINSTORM program, which now includes multiple projects led by other Brown faculty and students. A recent $5 million gift is also enabling the recruitment of new innovators to the program.

“BRAINSTORM attracts brain scientists who want to have an impact in the real world,” says Petzschner. “But it requires a whole set of new incentives and tools to make the translation possible.”

Both Frank and Petzschner have been pioneers in the new field of computational neurology and psychiatry. Since 2015, Petzschner has organized the world’s largest course in computational psychiatry, and she currently serves as an editor of the Journal of Computational Psychiatry. Frank is the 2021 recipient of the Troland Research Award from the National Academy of Sciences for his work in computational cognitive neuroscience, which combines multiple levels of computation with different types of data to improve understanding of the link between brain and mind.

BRAINSTORM attracts brain scientists who want to have an impact in the real world, but it requires a whole set of new incentives and tools to make the translation possible.

Frederike Petzschner BRAINSTORM Co-Director
Frederike Petzschner

Accelerating translational research

To bridge the gap from science to applications for better brain health, the BRAINSTORM program recruits researchers from academia and industry to contribute to projects at the interface of neuroscience, machine learning, and brain disorders.  

The program currently supports 10 project teams. The practical applications of these projects include but are not limited to more targeted treatment for obsessive compulsive disorder and epilepsy, the discovery of biomarkers for the functional deficits underlying psychiatric disorders, and using speech recognition to predict cognitive decline.

“All of our projects focus on having an impact in the real world. That impact can be by returning something to the scientific community that facilitates translation, for instance software that is then widely used by others,” says Petzschner. “Or it could address a specific clinical need by improving diagnosis and treatment of mental disorders.”

The program is unique in that it aims to merge the best of both worlds: a strong academic basis for new discovery with the support and infrastructure typical for industrial settings. This includes seed funding, access to shared research facilities, professional project management, team support, career development plans, and facilitation as well as support to build spinoff companies.

Part of this support comes from Brown Technology Innovations (BTI), a University office that coordinates intellectual property protection (patenting, copyrighting), marketing and licensing, establishment of start-up/spinout companies, and other forms of industry engagement.

Collaborations between BRAINSTORM and Brown’s Nelson Center for Entrepreneurship, the Brown-Lifespan Center for Digital Health, and the New England Medical Innovation Center Foundation serve to further strengthen each group’s business acumen. 

“I’m a neuroscientist. I’ve never written a business plan or done market research,” says Petzschner. “But if you want to turn your findings into real-world applications, this is the kind of knowledge you would want to acquire.”

I hope that we will be able to scale the BRAINSTORM program up to spawn a fertile intersection between basic computational brain science, the clinic, and industry.

Michael Frank BRAINSTORM Co-Director
Michael Frank

Expanding Brown’s capacity to improve lives

One goal of the program is to move projects to the point where they can be pitched to outside investors. For this reason, the BRAINSTORM program is building an advisory board of experts who can provide both clinical and industry feedback to project teams early in the process. 

“On the clinical side, they would ask ‘Are you addressing a clinical need? Could your project have a tangible impact on clinical practice?’” says Petzschner. “The business advisors look at it from a more commercial perspective and say, ‘Would this be something that could turn into a company? What would your business growth model look like?’”

BRAINSTORM and BTI are working hand in glove to propel these projects forward in this way.

BRAINSTORM logo“We have an extensive database of industry contacts, venture capitalists, and experienced entrepreneurs,” says Melissa Simon, director of business development at BTI. “We are also intimately tied into the Rhode Island entrepreneurial ecosystem and can make connections as appropriate to resources both within and outside of Brown.”

Industry interest in these projects is wide-ranging and includes pharmaceutical companies interested in novel approaches to treating depression, anxiety, and chronic pain, and corporations interested in predicting behavior across large data sets.

“Brain science is clearly an area of expertise for Brown and is a growing area of interest in industry, with significant dollars being invested in neurotherapeutics, diagnostics, and devices,” says Simon. “BRAINSTORM helps us understand research directions at the Carney Institute so we can start strategizing our industry engagement and/or commercialization planning.”

According to both Petzschner and Frank, Brown’s infrastructure and resources, its established excellence in brain science, and its location in New England’s entrepreneurial environment make it uniquely positioned to capitalize on the momentum in computational neuroscience and psychiatry.

“I hope that we will be able to scale the BRAINSTORM program up to spawn a fertile intersection between basic computational brain science, the clinic, and industry. Ultimately, of course, I'd like to see our projects make a difference to brain health and accelerate basic discovery,” Frank says.

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