Unravel the mysteries of the brain

Tom & Cathy Ryan

If the human brain is what gets your electrodes going, at URI you’ll have about a dozen different undergraduate majors from which to choose – from biochemistry and psychology to pharmacy, engineering, communicative disorders and more – and our graduate Interdisciplinary Neuroscience Program. And now, we have the George & Anne Ryan Institute for Neuroscience.

The George & Anne Ryan Institute for Neuroscience is engaging scientists and students in solving some of the most pressing health care challenges we face today, thanks to the generosity of the largest private donation in URI history.  Thomas M. Ryan, a 1975 URI graduate and former chairman, president and CEO of CVS Caremark, and his wife Cathy, donated $15 million to establish the Institute in honor of his late parents, whose lives were irreversibly changed by stroke and Alzheimer’s.

Neuroscience is one of the last scientific frontiers where fundamental discoveries can still be made. All behavior is under the umbrella of neuroscience. ~ Pharmacy Professor Nasser Zawia

“When you look at what’s happening around the world with ALS, autism, epilepsy, Parkinson’s, and Alzheimer’s, it’s truly an epidemic,” Ryan said.

The Ryan Institute focuses its research, teaching and outreach on such neurodegenerative diseases and disorders as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and ALS. It draws on the expertise of more than 30 scientists across URI who have been studying brain disorders and diseases from multiple perspectives and disciplines, and attracts leading researchers and other neuroscience programs to collaborate at URI. These scientists are in turn training future scientists in a field that’s increasingly important as people live longer and experience more neurological disorders later in life.

“Neuroscience is one of the last scientific frontiers where fundamental discoveries can still be made,” said Pharmacy Professor Nasser Zawia, director of the Interdisciplinary Neuroscience Program.  “All behavior is under the umbrella of neuroscience. How you behave is a result of brain function; when you love, you love with your brain.” He should know. Studying Alzheimer’s disease in mice, rats and monkeys, Professor Zawia has made major discoveries that have garnered international attention. His studies have found that Alzheimer’s disease has its foundations in infancy when babies are exposed to low levels of lead, a time period he calls “a window of vulnerability.”

When you study neurosciences at URI, besides Professor Zawia, you might also get to work with Biomedical Engineering Professor Walt Besio, who’s invented an electrode so sensitive that it can translate a person’s thoughts into electrical impulses that can be read by a computer, eventually enabling people who are paralyzed to use their thoughts to control their phone, television or other devices in their environment.  “The electrode allows me to see things that others haven’t been able to see before,” he said.

Or you could assist Communicative Disorders Professor Leslie Mahler as she leads a clinical support group for people living with Parkinson’s disease, 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.

Ryan’s $15 million gift to establish the Institute will enable us to grow our existing neuroscience program, hire additional prominent faculty, and compete for research grants that will advance the important work of neuroscience study even further. The opportunities available at URI to expand your mind about brain science are as thought-provoking as the brain itself.


Related Links

URI unveils $15M brain research center
RI Public Radio -11/14

URI receives $15 million gift to research diseases of brain
Providence Journal – 11/14

URI gifted $15 million to launch brain institute
San Francisco Chronicle – 11/14 (AP)

URI gifted $15 million to launch brain institute
Boston Globe – 11/14 (AP)

URI to establish neuroscience institute with $15 million gift
Providence Business News – 11/14



Walk in the door to the offices of ocean technology firm Navatek Ltd., located just a couple miles from the University, and you’ll think you never left campus. Half the staff is recent engineering graduates, and current students are interning there and working on research projects. In fact, when the Honolulu-based firm considered where to open its first East Coast office, proximity to URI was a major factor. The company was eager to collaborate with the URI College of Engineering to develop its future workforce.