John Robson ’70, Highlights Innovations in the Treatment of Brain Diseases

“Science for the Greater Good” series continues with “Cool New Translational Neuroscience”

Before an audience of Trinity students, faculty, and fellow alumni, John Robson ’70, discussed the advances made in neuroscience in the previous decades and his optimism for the treatment of brain diseases moving forward. During a Common Hour lecture on Thursday, he highlighted successes made in the treatment of paralysis, epilepsy, depression, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

Robson is the associate director for medical research and clinical programs at Brown University’s Brown Institute for Brain Science, as well as the administrative director of the Norman Prince Neurosciences Institute at Rhode Island Hospital. His focus is on developing collaborative research initiatives at Rhode Island Hospital and integrating programs with the research at Brown. This work was the subject of Robson’s installment of Trinity’s ongoing “Science for the Greater Good” series of lectures.

“Just being back on campus for a few minutes brings back a lot of great memories,” recalled Robson as he began a brief neuroscience primer for those in the audience without background in the field. He then began to discuss “alternatives to pharmacological approaches” in dealing with severe cases of brain disease.

First, he shared a video that demonstrated how BrainGate, a device that replaces broken nerve circuits with external wires, allowed a patient unable to move her arms to control a robotic arm by thinking about the action of moving her own.

Robson also discussed deep brain stimulation, or DBS, a practice approved by the United States Food and Drug Administration for the treatment of Parkinson’s and depression, but which holds the potential to treat Alzheimer’s, epilepsy, and other ailments. He shared several videos of treatments, including ones demonstrating the instantaneous effects of DBS on depression and Parkinson’s.

Epilepsy research is currently under way at Brown, where researchers are attempting to use single-neuron recordings to identify patterns that can predict – and, through DBS, potentially prevent – epileptic seizures.

In concluding his presentation, Robson discussed the treatment of extreme cases of OCD with gamma knife technology, where several weak beams of radiation converge in one spot to create lesions on the brain. One patient suffered from such debilitating OCD that he was unable to feed himself, go to school, or perform most basic tasks. Following the gamma knife treatment, his condition improved and continued to do so. He was then able to go to college, went on to medical school, and today has a medical practice in Ohio.

Robson ended by reaffirming his optimism about the future of neuroscience and the advances that technology is making possible.

“This technological approach will have a place in treating people for years to come,” he said.