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Bench science steps into the spotlight during the pandemic

Adam Rouse, M.D., Ph.D., an assistant professor and director of basic research in the Department of Neurosurgery, sees basic science emerging as a key player in the fight against the pandemic

Like many researchers when the new coronavirus hit the United States this spring, Adam Rouse, M.D., Ph.D., was forced to press pause on all the good work going on in his lab, the Precision Neural Dynamics Lab at the University of Kansas Medical Center.

But that doesn't mean the work done by basic scientists, even those such as Rouse who don't study viruses or infectious diseases, isn't important during the pandemic. Basic science, also referred to as fundamental or bench research, provides a base of knowledge that applied science can use for the development of treatments, therapeutics and vaccines.

In fact, as the global health crisis has progressed into a chronic state, Rouse, an assistant professor and director of basic research in the Department of Neurosurgery, sees basic science emerging as a key player in the fight against the pandemic. For him, one of the enduring lessons of this protracted wrestling match with this coronavirus is that solving complex scientific puzzles, like figuring out the biological process that leads to COVID-19 and neutralizing its effects, is often uneven and chaotic.

As the public gets a unique glimpse of that reality as experts continue to grapple with the dangerous viral illness, Rouse senses more appreciation for basic science as well as growing frustration.

"We just have to understand that science is messy, and the experts don't always get it right on the first try. We have to continue to assess new data, adjust and try to make things better," he said. "As scientists, we're really trying to be as rigorous as possible, and even that's a challenge for us sometimes. For the public, it's even harder to figure out how to evaluate the data properly. I have confidence in our clinicians doing different studies and the basic scientists looking at the data, but it's a process that just takes time."

Building a foundation

Bench science research involves laboratory studies with cell cultures, animal studies or physiological experiments. Its importance, and the solid groundwork it lays for applied science, has been a critical, though perhaps less discussed, underlying theme throughout the ongoing pandemic.

Rouse is interested in how the brain works, but he never knows exactly how some of his research will translate. Similarly, there are basic scientists who have been studying coronaviruses for years, without realizing how their efforts would pave the way for other researchers to work more efficiently and effectively toward treatments and a cure for COVID-19.

"This pandemic has made it crystal clear why it's important to have these basic science experts in place," Rouse said. "Our goal as basic scientists is to be ready for when these opportunities present themselves."

Rouse's expertise lies in the integration of hand, finger and arm movements. In particular, he studies how the brain encodes those movements as well as how to use brain signals to interface, or "talk," to computers in order to control an external device such as a cursor on a computer screen or a robotic arm.

The direct implications of Rouse's work may be that a person with a brain injury or a neurological condition is better able to reach for or grasp objects or use enhanced brain-computer interface technology. Broader possibilities for his research include better descriptions of how brain areas communicate, which can lead to new rehabilitation and neuromodulation therapies for different neurologic diseases.

Loss of smell and/or taste, dizziness, headache, seizures, stroke and other neurological symptoms have been reported in people who have contracted COVID-19. That finding is sparking a growing body of research on these effects.

It remains to be seen if down the road Rouse's work will play a role in helping to understand, address and manage neurological complications from this new coronavirus. However, the heightened attention on these symptoms reminds him of the renewed interest in helping amputees and people who survive explosions that occurred during the Iraqi War.

Impacted by the shutdown

At KU Medical Center, Rouse holds a unique position as a basic scientist in a clinical department. In fact, it's one of the elements that attracted him to his current position in neurosurgery, which engages in both basic and clinical research.

Before the stay-at-home mandates shut down his lab in the spring, Rouse was making strides on a five-year NIH Pathway to Independence award. He launched the three-year data analysis of the grant earlier this year at KU Medical Center after completing two years of data gathering at the University of Rochester.

During the six-week stoppage, Rouse and others working in his lab continued data analysis and other scholarly activities from home while tasks such as data collection, preparing the lab for various projects and even installing important equipment were halted or slowed. To keep the work flowing, help acclimate new individuals to the lab and boost group cohesion, the team met regularly over videoconferencing.

Rouse's lab is back in action this fall working at close to pre-pandemic productivity levels with close attention being paid to when lab members are present to reduce overlap and ensure physical distancing. Much of the data analysis and writing is still being done from home.

Getting back on track

Looking ahead, in addition to continuing his current research projects, Rouse is developing a strategy for collecting preliminary data for an upcoming grant submission. Meanwhile, he's keeping a sharp eye out for any potential new research opportunities that may arise.

"The neurological consequences of this coronavirus are certainly worrying. I'm not sure COVID-19 is going to significantly increase the number of people who have strokes each year, for instance, but it certainly motivates me in the lab to try to help people experiencing loss of movement, no matter or not if it's related to COVID-19," he said. "It doesn't change how we're conducting our research, but it's a good reminder of all the different disease processes that can affect people."

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