Feds back brain research with record-breaking investment

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An unprecedented federal research funding push will position Western to radically transform humankind’s understanding of brain disorders.

On Tuesday, Western’s BrainsCAN: Brain Health For Life initiative received a $66-million investment from the Canada First Research Excellence Fund (CFREF) – the largest research grant in the university’s history. The funding was part of a $900-million investment in 13 postsecondary institutions, announced by Kirsty Duncan, Minister of Science, during an event at the University of Waterloo.

“The Canada First Research Excellence Fund will equip Canada to respond to some of the most pressing issues it will face in the future: Brain health, sustainable food and water supplies, environmental concerns, future energy supplies,” Duncan said. “The research supported through this fund will make the country stronger, and provide Canadians with an increased sense of optimism for the future.”

Already ranked among the best in the world in cognitive neuroscience and neuroimaging, Western excels in the breadth of cognitive, computational, clinical, technological and translational approaches required for understanding and intervening in brain function.

BrainsCAN will bring together researchers from across campus under one unifying initiative.

The Brain and Mind Institute and Centre for Functional and Metabolic Mapping involve researchers from seven faculties across campus including, Arts & Humanities, Engineering, Health Sciences, Ivey Business School, Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry, Science and Social Science. Most researchers are jointly appointed in at least two departments in different faculties.

As part of the initiative, Western will partner with researchers at McGill University – who received $88 million for its Healthy Brains for Healthy Lives initiative – to leverage both institutions’ complementary expertise to better understand disorders such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, traumatic brain injury and schizophrenia.

“This level of funding is going to allow us to realize local potential,” said Western neuroscientist Adrian Owen, Canada Excellence Research Chair in Cognitive Neuroscience and Imaging. “We are good here at imaging; we are good here at neuroscience; we have a lot of strength in cognitive neuroscience. But with this level of funding, we can bring all of those things together and tackle many serious disorders of the brain head on.”

Owen, a Psychology professor, and Schulich professor Lisa Saksida will serve as Co-Scientific Directors of BrainsCAN.

“BrainsCAN is going to be enormously important for tackling serious brain disorders,” Owen said. “Many of us here at Western have been working away at these disorders, somewhat independently. What BrainsCAN is going to allow us to do is bring similar methodologies to bear on common problems that apply to all of these disorders.”

BrainsCAN’s goal is to reduce the burden of brain disorders, which affect nearly 3.6 million Canadians, diminishing quality of life and creating an enormous burden on society and the health-care system. Neurological and psychiatric disorders together account for $22.7 billion per year in health-care costs in Canada.

“Understanding higher brain functions is central to the diagnosis and treatment of psychiatric and neurological disease, for improving childhood learning and communication, for optimizing neurosurgical interventions and for the development of intelligent devices,” Owen said. “To do this, we must aggressively pursue new technological innovations – a key strength at Western.”

Brain impairments create deficits in memory, attention, knowledge, problem solving and communication, affecting how those impacted interact with everything and everyone around them.

“The question of how the brain works is just a really interesting scientific question. We don’t know a lot about the brain. It is incredibly complex – this is one of the great unsolved mysteries in science at the moment,” said Saksida, an artificial intelligence expert. “The more we know about the neurobiology of the brain, and how that relates to cognition, the better able we will be to develop new treatments and new targets for treatments for these devastating disorders.

“This funding will help BrainsCAN researchers radically transform our understanding of brain disorders and deliver effective solutions to the grand challenge of maintaining brain function across the lifespan. With our partners at McGill, Western researchers will continue to make game-changing discoveries that benefit the health, social and financial well-being of Canadians.”

Owen echoed those sentiments.

“By opening up opportunities for partnerships with other universities, as well as relationships with industrial partners, BrainsCAN is going to allow us to create a pan-Canadian neuroscience initiative that, I believe, is going to be the best in the world.”

The announcement represented the conclusion of the second and final round of the inaugural Canada First Research Excellence Fund competition. In July 2015, five initiatives received funding worth $350 million in total. The largest amount awarded in the second round was $93 million to Dalhousie University for its Safe and Sustainable Development of the Ocean Frontier initiative.

“This investment reaffirms the longstanding excellence of Western’s transdisciplinary research community on the national scale, particularly in the areas of cognitive neuroscience and imaging, where a world-class team has come together to solve complex problems,” said Western President Amit Chakma. “We are extremely grateful to the Government of Canada for its vote of confidence and the opportunity to advance this important science.”

The fund is administered by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR).

“Today’s investment by the Government of Canada enables our leading postsecondary research institutions to capitalize on areas in which they excel. Indeed, it promises to make them world leaders in these areas, and strengthen Canada’s position as the destination of choice for innovation and cutting-edge research,” said Ted Hewitt, SSHRC President, and chair of the Canada First Research Excellence Fund Steering Committee.

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WHAT IS CFREF?

Created in 2014, the Canada First Research Excellence Fund (CFREF) supports Canadian postsecondary institutions in their efforts to become global research leaders. The fund helps Canadian universities, colleges and polytechnics compete with the best in the world for talent and partnership opportunities. It also supports them to make breakthrough discoveries; seize emerging opportunities and strategically advance their greatest strengths on the global stage; and implement large-scale, transformational and forward-thinking institutional strategies.

The fund is governed by a steering committee comprising the presidents of the three federal research granting agencies – the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) – and the deputy ministers of Health Canada and Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada. The Canada Foundation for Innovation holds observer status on the committee.

The inaugural CFREF competition was split into two parts, with a first competition awarding some $350 million to five initiatives. This second competition, announced Tuesday, awarded $900 million to 13 initiatives.