New Spine Center Expands Rhode Island Hospital’s Already Industry-Leading Care

Spine Center


Outside the common cold, back pain is the leading reason people visit their primary care physician. Fortunately, for patients across the Ocean State and beyond, the most comprehensive spine care in the region can be found right here, at the Norman Prince Spine Institute at Rhode Island Hospital. 

Even better, is the expansion of those capabilities—paired with groundbreaking research—made possible with the recent opening of a new, state-of-the-art spine center on Eddy Street in Providence.

“What we have, you really can’t find anywhere else,” says Ziya Gokaslan, MD, who leads the Norman Prince Spine Institute and is Chief of Neurosurgery at Rhode Island and The Miriam hospitals. “Our program is fully integrated, meaning whatever specialty or service a patient needs can be found in one place.”

A vision becomes reality.

Recruited to Rhode Island in 2015 from Johns Hopkins, Dr. Gokaslan has long been considered one of the nation’s top neurosurgeons, having transformed the surgical treatment of primary and metastatic spinal tumors. From the moment he arrived on campus, he’s been thinking about this very moment. But Dr. Gokaslan is quick to deflect credit.

“This has been an incredible team effort,” he says. “We have built a neurosciences program that is very unique and that makes an incredible difference in our ability to recruit the best minds in the field to come work here.”

Home to world experts in everything from complex, rare diseases of the spine to the more common degenerative issues seen most often, the spine center has brought patients from as many as 20 different countries to Rhode Island to seek care. Patients, however, are not all it attracts. With a highly competitive spinal surgery fellowship program that accepts two or three applicants per year, Dr. Gokaslan and his team are training the next generation of neurosurgeons. “They’re coming here as a result of the recognition our faculty have received,” he says, “and more importantly, they want to stay and practice and research here.”

“It is amazing what we’re able to do to better the lives of our patients... We have all the elements in place to be the leading institution in North America.”                                        

— Dr. Ziya Gokaslan

Patricia Leigh Zadnik Sullivan, MD, an expert in spine tumor and chordoma research, joined the team earlier this year after completing the complex spinal surgery fellowship. And soon, Athar Malik, MD, PhD, a renowned neurosurgeon out of Boston, will join the faculty after a successful national search.

This recruitment, combined with the collaborative Center for Innovative Neurotechnology for Neural Repair (CINNR) laboratory, is helping to place Rhode Island Hospital’s spine program in a league all its own and with global ramifications. The CINNR is a partnership that also includes Brown University and commercial and government partners and seeks to develop technology for patients with spinal cord injury for the restoration of lower extremity use and bladder function.

Currently, the CINNR is in phase one of a multi-million-dollar Intelligent Spinal Interface study funded by the U.S. DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency). For the study, two sets of electrodes are surgically implanted in the participant’s spine—one above and one below the site of the injury. Through a set of wires, the electrodes transmit data to a computer and are later removed.

“This is groundbreaking, world-class stuff,” says Dr. Gokaslan. “We’re competing with the leading academic medical institutions in the country and  we are succeeding. It has validated that we are on the right path.”

Spine Center


The future is now.

In a field as constantly evolving as the neurosciences, there’s no time to rest on your laurels, no matter how impressive the accolades. And it’s a relentless pursuit to solve the unknown and realize the future today that drives Dr. Gokaslan and the entire neurosciences team.

This past summer, Rhode Island Hospital added two GPS-guided robotic surgical systems, making it the first site in New England to use the cutting-edge technology for cranial and spinal applications. The device, considered the next generation of surgical capabilities, enables surgeons to target circuits in the brain or in the spinal column for placement of spinal hardware to a level of precision within a millimeter or two.

What this allows for is the ability to alter the brain function to obtain a specific treatment for a specific disease. This means an ability to treat the tremors associated with Parkinson’s disease, epilepsy, and even debilitating psychiatric problems like intractable obsessive-compulsive disorder.

“It is amazing what we’re able to do to better the lives of our patients,” finishes Dr. Gokaslan. “At the same time, we’re just scratching the surface of what can happen in the neurosciences. We have all the elements in place to be the leading institution in North America.”