One of Britain’s best picks Western

Adrian Owen is what many would consider a low-maintenance rock star.

Adrian Owen, one of the world’s foremost neuroscientists, has been recruited by The University of Western Ontario to assume the role of the Canada Excellence Research Chair in Neuroscience and Imaging. Owen, currently at the University of Cambridge in England, begins Jan. 1.

 

The laid-back, quick-witted man is all smiles, having secured a significant purse of research funding and a new international audience for his Indi-pop band, You Jump First. Two sides of his personality coin.

“You don’t have to be stuffy to be a scientist,” he says.

And the personable Owen is anything but stuffy.

As The University of Western Ontario’s newest recruit and one of the world’s foremost neuroscientists, he comes to Western (beginning Jan. 1, 2011) from the University of Cambridge, coaxed by $10 million in federal government funding to assume the Canada Excellence Research Chair in Neuroscience and Imaging.

“There are fantastic facilities here. The imaging is first class, as far as I understand, easily the best imaging facilities in Canada.”

The decision to move to Western was a “no-brainer” he says, but his desire to live and work in Canada took root much earlier.

After completing his undergraduate and graduate studies in England, he worked on his post-doctorate at the Montreal Neurological Institute, which is associated with McGill University. During the late 1980s, imaging was growing in popularity and Montreal was one of three places in the world at the leading edge.

“I always thought I would stay in Canada, to be honest,” he says.

But, after three years he moved back to the United Kingdom to work at Cambridge.

“About 15 years later, I’ve finally made it back. It took a little bit longer than I thought,” he jokes. “I don’t think I can emphasize enough how much the enthusiasm of everyone here has contributed to our move.”

Don’t let the modesty fool you. Owen brings incredible notoriety and star-power to Western’s Centre for Brain & Mind.

He made headlines in February for a ground-breaking study demonstrating that some patients in a vegetative state can communicate. In April, Owen again attracted international attention for a study which showed ‘brain training’ video games do not make people smarter.

He plans to continue his study of cognitive deficits – problems in perceiving, thinking, reasoning and remembering – in patients suffering from neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s, Huntington’s, Alzheimer’s and ALS.

He also wants to develop brain-computer interfaces that would allow patients to communicate with the outside world. This will help in developing potential therapies and interventions.

Home to Canada’s only 7 Tesla (7T) functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI), Owen will be able to use the scanner to develop a clearer picture of where brain injuries occur. The proximity of University Hospital and Robarts Research Institute will provide easy access to the clinical setting.

He is bringing his entire research team to Western.

Owen may be a star in the academic world, but he is no stranger to the limelight in his personal life either.

The guitarist and lead singer for a band made up of mostly neuroscientists – including his wife Jessica Grahn who plays cello – Owen has headlined at international academic conferences, local venues and weddings.

The members are spread across various countries, so moving to Canada is not expected to break up the band.

“I’ve noticed over the last 15 years that a lot of neuroscientists harbour secret ambitions to be rock musicians and are quite good musicians,” he says. “It’s great to have those two sides of your life which perhaps seem incongruous to some people.”

The commitment of the federal government to investing in neuroscience research makes Canada particularly attractive, says Grahn, who will take on an assistant professor position in the Department of Psychology.

She is interested in how musical rhythm is processed in the brain and how musical rhythm differs from processing of other types of temporal sequences, as well as the impact music can have on people with movement disorders, like Parkinson’s disease.

“One of the things that were really important to us was to make a move that we both could be happy about,” says Grahn, noting Canada has several high-profile music neuroscientists. “There was never a sense I was coming in as a hanger-on. Everyone very much made a commitment to me and my research.

“I think Adrian and I thought the same – how can you turn this down?”

Owen grew up in the commuter town of Kent, located about 25 miles from London, England. His older brother was the first in the family to attend university and is now a space physicist. Owen followed in his brother’s footsteps studying at universities locally and abroad, and now they bond over the highs and lows of academic life. His younger sister is a nurse working at an agricultural college in the U.K.

Moving to the ‘other’ London will bring the couple closer to Grahn’s family. She was raised in Salt Lake City, Utah and studied piano performance and neuroscience at Northwestern University. She completed her PhD in Cambridge and has lived in England for 10 years.

Owen’s research will complement the work of Melvyn Goodale, Ravi Menon and colleagues at the Centre for Brain & Mind.

Goodale says the university “went for the very best” in neuroscience, recruiting Owen to strengthen the centre’s connection with the clinical community.

“We are already an internationally recognized centre,” he says. “I think hiring Adrian and Jessica puts us at a new level.”

More information about Owen is available at https://communications.uwo.ca/cerc/.