R. John Davenport, an adjunct associate professor of neuroscience at Brown University, is managing director of the Brown Institute for Brain Science, which supports research among more than 100 Brown faculty members. A member of the Society for Neuroscience, the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the National Association of Science Writers, Davenport earned his Ph.D. from the University of Oregon.
Davenport talked with Providence Business News recently about the 21st Century Cures Act, a $6.3 billion bill that includes an allocation of $1.5 billion to the National Institutes of Health for the Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies initiative, often referred to as the BRAIN Initiative. That initiative aims to revolutionize our understanding of how the brain works, essential for more effectively treating, preventing and curing brain disorders.
PBN: Describe how the $1.5 billion in federal funding for the BRAIN Initiative will be allocated to different brain diseases.
DAVENPORT: It is exciting to see that Congress continues to support the BRAIN Initiative, a program that matches well with the expertise we have in the Brown Institute for Brain Science. The BRAIN Initiative is focused on developing new tools and technologies that can reveal the function of the brain at an unprecedented level of detail. It is spurring innovations for understanding how the amazing human brain generates sophisticated outputs like cognition, navigation, memory, emotion and movement. These tools are being developed not just by neuroscientists, but by chemists, computer scientists, engineers and physicists.
Insights into healthy brain function will help reveal how brain circuits go awry in brain disease, disorders and injury. The work funded through the BRAIN initiative will benefit our ability to understand and treat many brain diseases and disorders, including stroke, epilepsy and neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, more commonly known as ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease, as well as helping restore function in those who have suffered brain injury or paralysis.
PBN: How much of an impact do you envision these additional funds will have on research and cures, if any?
DAVENPORT: Research is a collaborative expedition, not an individual quest. Breakthroughs in brain disease depend on many, many scientists conducting research ranging from laboratory science to clinical studies. And often, breakthroughs depend on knowledge coming from areas you don’t expect, such as statistics, engineering and even ecology. Any additional investment that supports new work on the brain will accelerate the overall effort.
But it’s important to consider our country’s total investment in research. The 21st Century Cures Act authorizes $1.5 billion in BRAIN funding distributed over 10 years; that funding is actually a small portion of what the federal government invests in science related to understanding the brain. For example, the National Institute of Neurological Disease and Stroke and the National Institute of Mental Health each have annual budgets of approximately $1.5 billion. And that doesn’t include funds in other NIH institutes, as well as brain-related research funded by the National Science Foundation, the Department of Defense and other agencies. Concerted investments in special programs like BRAIN can accelerate work in that area, but we must always keep a lookout for what essential research is not getting funded as a result. A sustained, broad research effort is what leads to breakthroughs in all the areas of human health that are of urgent concern.
PBN: Which Rhode Island institutions, if any, do you anticipate benefiting from this influx of new funds?
DAVENPORT: Researchers in the Brown Institute for Brain Science are already involved in projects funded through BRAIN; in many cases, they are working with other scientists around the country. These projects include a big-data approach to studying brain connectivity, developing software to better interpret certain kinds of brain scans and advancing a wireless implantable neural interface for use in humans. Importantly, BRAIN aims to develop new tools that will be available for everyone to use to understand the brain ever more deeply. So, all researchers in Rhode Island, including at Brown and its affiliated hospitals, and our colleagues at the newly formed Ryan Institute for Neurosciences at the University of Rhode Island, will be able to conduct more effective research with these new tools, whether our research is supported through these new funds or not.
PBN: How soon might patients suffering from Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s, for example, realize the benefits of research initiatives funded through the new legislation?
DAVENPORT: It is difficult to predict when breakthroughs will come. The work is a collective endeavor undertaken by many scientists working around the country – and around the world. It’s only through a sustained investment that we will ultimately make headway to improve understanding and treatment of brain diseases and disorders. For example, here in our Institute, two decades of investment in fundamental neuroscience research have led to a startup company that is developing a new therapy for Duchenne’s muscular dystrophy. In another project, a team of neuroscientists is using fruit flies, nematodes and mice to uncover the earliest steps in ALS disease in order to eventually develop treatments for this devastating neurodegenerative condition. We’re excited by our early progress, but we don’t know yet when these insights might ultimately improve clinical care. It’s a challenge for scientists because we know the clock is ticking for patients and they don’t have time to waste; yet we have to do the careful research necessary to produce real, effective advances that are truly helpful.
PBN: Do you expect the Trump administration to support the funding for this BRAIN initiative as well as past NIH funding for brain diseases?
DAVENPORT: With any new administration or new Congress comes questions about what research will get funded. Ultimately, the authority for appropriating funds belongs to Congress. We’re grateful that members of our own Rhode Island congressional delegation recognize the importance of scientific research to our society and fight hard to keep the United States a world leader in research. The 21st Century Cures Act is a high-profile demonstration of Congress’ support for research. But Congress must still do the hard work of approving a budget so that this promise turns into actual investments in research and brain health. Our role as scientists remains the same. We must continue to carry out high-quality, ethical and responsible research and we must show our lawmakers and all Americans how a broad investment in outstanding, rigorous research – whether in brain science, particle physics, ecology or social sciences – brings a range of benefits to society.