Tamara Tavares, a graduate student in the Emotional Cognition Lab (ECL) of Western’s Brain and Mind Institute, took the top spot in Western’s sixth annual Three Minute Thesis (3MT) competition last week, tackling the complex world of frontotemporal dementia (FTD), a highly hereditary neurodegenerative disorder.
“Patients with FTD engage in inappropriate social behaviour, show a lack of empathy towards their loved ones and have difficulty recognizing other people’s emotions,” said Tavaras. “As the symptoms are quite variable, and overlap with psychiatric disorders, detecting FTD, especially during the early stages, is quite challenging. Accurate and early diagnosis is critical because there are treatments in clinical trials aimed at slowing down the progression of this disease. These treatments, however, need to be administered in the early stages of the disorder, before substantial brain tissue loss occurs.”
The problem, added Tavares, is we’re not really good at diagnosing these individuals, especially during the early stages of the disease. The average FTD patient goes about five years with symptoms before diagnosis because the disease can overlap with others issues, including depression. If there is no family history of FTD, it can be even harder to diagnose initially because of the subtle changes the disorder brings to personality, decision-making and judgement.
Tavares is working towards identifying specific biomarkers in the brain, using neuroimaging techniques, to identify early brain changes in individuals who are at risk os developing FTD.
“I look at the amount of brain tissue loss and the amount of brain activity during emotional processing tasks,” said Tavares, who is supervised in the ECL by Drs. Derek Mitchell and Elizabeth Finger. “What’s exciting is we can actually detect subtle brain changes in these at-risk individuals, years before we expect to see their symptoms. This means we can use these brain changes in order to help diagnose individuals earlier along in the disorder.”
FTD disease affects personality, rather than memory, and presents itself in patients in their 50s or 60s, at least a decade earlier than most Alzheimer’s patients. Tavares said researchers are on the right track and it will be a combination of different biomarkers. She is looking at ventricular shape-based biomarkers, similar to what is used in looking at Alzheimer’s disease.
“No one has looked to see if those genetically at risk for FTD, whether they have differences in (ventrical enlargement) compared to people who don’t have the mutation,” she said. “Knowing the diagnosis is one step closer to treating the disorder.”
Tavares is also continuing her research by looking at social cognitive processing in healthy individuals, in particular family members of those with FTD, to understand how the brain works and how potential deficits may arise. FTD cases are hereditary in 50 per cent of the cases.
Tavares took part in the regional 3MT competition yesterday at the University of Waterloo. Should she move on to nationals, winners will be announced in early June, with the overall winner receiving $1,500 and an all-expenses paid trip to the Canadian Association of Graduate Studies annual conference in Quebec City.
Win or lose, Tavares is thrilled to be working towards a potential breakthrough for FTD patients and their families.
“So perhaps, in a few years from now, when a patient’s family asks, ‘Doctor, what is the diagnosis?’ we will have an answer,” she said.
Western’s Three Minute Thesis (3MT) is a research communication competition where graduate students have three minutes, or less, to present their research and its impact to a panel of non-specialist judges and peers. Western was one of the first Canadian universities to host a 3MT competition in 2012.
The winners for this year’s competition included:
Tamara Tavares, PhD candidate, Neuroscience, Schulich Medicine & Dentistry
‘Doctor, what is the diagnosis?’
Dr. Shane Smith, MSc candidate, Surgery, Schulich Medicine & Dentistry
‘Combat Vascular Trauma: From Characterization to Innovation’
Gregory Wallace, PhD candidate, Chemistry, Faculty of Science
‘Fabrication of Metallic Nanostructures for Molecular Plasmonics’