When Ruth McFeat heard the Ontario Brain Institute (OBI) was investing $15 million to support research on neurodegeneration, the progressive loss of the structure and/or function of neurons, she couldn’t have been more thrilled.
Her husband, Forrest, was diagnosed in 1996 with ALS, a rapidly progressive and fatal neurodegenerative disease. Forrest would die 20 months later, donating his brain and spinal column to Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry dean Michael Strong, who served as his doctor.
Reading up on the disease, McFeat said most of the books described ALS, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, as a physical ailment, but she felt cognitive function played a major role as well. During his battle with the disease, Forrest would volunteer for a series of memory and cognitive tests.
“He was asked to type a story about his family and was given an hour to do so. He typed for five minutes and sat back, entirely satisfied with his work,” McFeat said. “I asked if he wanted to write any more. He shook his head and said ‘no.’ I read the few sentences he had written and they represented a very basic, child-like description of our family. This was a man who, a year earlier, was very literate and would have filled pages with family anecdotes.”
Led by Strong, this new project will unite more than 40 researchers and their resources from across Ontario to tackle one of the leading drivers of health-care cost and reduced quality of life for the aging population, namely those brain disorders that lead to impairments in memory and cognition.
Along with the $15 million from the OBI – part of the government’s $100 million investment in the institute – another $5 million has been secured from other sources to bring the total funding to $20 million to look into diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and ALS. The announcement was made last week at Robarts Research Institute.
In addition to Western and Robarts, collaborating institutions include the major Ontario research universities – Toronto, Waterloo, Ottawa, McMaster, Queen’s – as well as research institutes – Ottawa Hospital Research Institute, Sunnybrook Research Institute and Rotman Research Institute.
“Never before, either here or worldwide, have experts in seemingly diverse diseases come together into a single collaboration to understand the basis, commonalities and distinguishing characteristics of these devastating disorders,” Strong said. “By combining our efforts, we will critically evaluate the contribution of vascular disease to each of these disorders, focusing on defining the earliest markers of cognitive change associated with each of these disorders, and, in doing so, develop and evaluate proactive treatment strategies.”
Within 15 years, 1-in-4 people will be diagnosed with an early-degenerative disease, Strong said. Given its high frequency in the aging population, a better understanding of the contribution of vascular disease to cognition and behavior, daily function and mobility across these brain disorders is urgently needed.
“Neurodegenerative disorders are expected to be the single greatest cost pressure for governments worldwide as the Baby Boomers reach the critical time for the development of these diseases,” Strong said. “It is estimated a single reduction by 1 per cent in the prevalence of Alzheimer’s disease alone, or a slowing in the rate of disease progression, will save billions of dollars in health-care expenditures and lost productivity for primary caregivers.”
He added this project will carefully characterize individuals with the specific intent of identifying early clinical, neurochemical or neuroimaging features, along with genetic traits, that will reliably predict who will develop frontotemporal dementia.
“Having done so, we will then critically evaluate treatment approaches designed to specifically alter the underlying vascular factors that are increasingly understood to precipitate or accelerate the dementia,” Strong said. “There is nowhere else in the world where this is going to happen to the extent it’s going to happen here.
“Over 40 investigators working together asking one question, ‘Can we prevent this?’ This is something that will change the way we practice medicine.”
McFeat, for one, looks forward to the day such diseases are a thing of the past.
“It is absolutely horrible to watch a loved one that endured, day after day, the ravages of an illness that would end in their death,” she said. “It is my belief this initiative will advance research in the area of neurodegeneration for a number of life-threating illnesses and hopefully identify people at risk at a very early stage for early diagnosis and treatment.”