At URI, neuroscience research activity is concentrated in five major areas: dementia and aging, psychology, biomedical engineering, communicative disorders, and biological sciences. Within these broad areas, researchers at the university are working to answer key questions about Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, Down’s syndrome, epilepsy, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, executive functions, motor speech, spinal cord injuries, schizophrenia, cognitive communication, artificial limbs, chronic pain, and more.
Dementia and Aging
Nasser Zawia has made major discoveries about Alzheimer’s disease that have garnered international attention. His latest research on an anti-inflammatory drug used to treat migraines in Europe has led to it being scheduled for human clinical trials as a treatment for Alzheimer’s. In 2005, Zawia announced in a study funded by the National Institutes of Health that Alzheimer’s disease has its foundations in infancy when babies are exposed to low levels of lead. Nine years of follow-up studies and $2 million in grant funding later, he has proven conclusively that infant exposure to lead results in late-age cognitive decline and pathology linked to Alzheimer’s disease. According to Zawia, one of the keys to stopping Alzheimer’s disease is early detection. “If we can diagnose the illness earlier,” he said, “then we might be able to minimize the disease’s effects.”
Attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a chronic neuro-developmental disorder characterized by impulsivity, restlessness, and an inability to focus. It’s a disorder that Lisa Weyandt says causes academic and social challenges not just for young children, but also for college students. A leading researcher on the effects of ADHD on young adults, Weyandt is involved in an NIH-funded study of college students with ADHD. Unfortunately, many students who have not been diagnosed with ADHD take medications prescribed for the disorder because they think it will improve their academic performance. But, Weyandt warns, “There are known health risks associated with taking these medications–it decreases appetite and causes difficulty sleeping–and they’re doing it without scientific evidence that it is truly enhancing their cognitive abilities and academic performance.” Weyandt and her students were the first to identify specific psychological variables associated with those that misuse prescription stimulants.
Thanks to his patented invention, Walt Besio can read minds. His bull’s-eye electrode is so sensitive that it can translate a person’s thoughts into electrical impulses that can be read by a computer. This will enable people who are paralyzed to use their thoughts to control their phone, television, or other devices in their environment. Besio’s electrode can detect brain signals not discernible with currently used EEG equipment, which has promising implications for improving the diagnosis and treatment of epilepsy. Besio’s invention can pinpoint where on the brain a seizure originates, helping to diagnose disease. It can also be used to administer an electrical stimulus to a precise location in the brain to control seizures. Besio, who became a biomedical engineer to help his brother regain mobility after becoming paralyzed in a car accident, says “My goal is to help alleviate pain, disability, disease, and suffering in society.”
Every week, about 20 people living with Parkinson’s disease spend an hour with Leslie Mahler and her graduate students in a clinical support group aimed at helping the patients overcome the speech disorders that typically result from the disease. Dubbed the Loud Crowd, they work on strategies to correct their slurred or monotone speech, breathy or hoarse voice, and reduced vocal volume, all of which result from underlying neural mechanisms. Mahler, who spent 23 years working as a speech pathologist in a hospital before coming to URI, leads several programs like this one, addressing communication issues that arise from neurological disorders. “I study treatments that help people speak more clearly,” said Mahler. “Our behavioral treatments incorporate principles of motor learning to drive changes in neuroplasticity and change not only speech behaviors but how the brain controls those behaviors.”