Neuroscience grants promote teamwork

Maggie MacLellan // Special to Western News

Western University neuroscientist Adrian Owen, Canada Excellence Research Chair in Cognitive Neuroscience and Imaging at The Brain and Mind Institute and BrainsCAN.

Two of the world’s most accomplished neuroscience centres – Western’s BrainsCAN and McGill’s Healthy Brains for Healthy Lives – are sharing their expertise in seven ground-breaking team projects.

The seven teams of researchers awarded funding in the inaugural round of the McGill-Western Collaboration Grants are headed by renowned neuroscientists working to treat, prevent and cure brain disorders.

The research between the two institutions sets the the groundwork for a collaborative pan-Canadian research network that works to uncover new ways to treat, prevent and cure brain disorders.

“The McGill-Western Collaboration Grant program gives Western and McGill neuroscientists the opportunity and incentive to work collaboratively on projects, utilizing the world-class infrastructure and expertise at both institutions,” said Ravi Menon, BrainsCAN scientific co-director. “The understanding of brain disorders is still very much a challenge, so bringing together the vast knowledge of Western and McGill researchers is a fantastic opportunity to help solve the mysteries of neurodegenerative conditions together.”

The first grants focus on work to understand and reduce the burden of epilepsy, consciousness and cognition, Alzheimer disease, memory and auditory cognition.

Western’s Adrian Owen, Canada Excellence Research Chair in Cognitive Neuroscience and Imaging at The Brain and Mind Institute, will begin his project with Stefanie Blain-Moraes, professor of Physical and Occupational Therapy at McGill next year to work with unresponsive, brain-injured patients in the intensive care unit (ICU).

Its goal is to accurately predict the prognosis and long-term outcomes for unresponsive ICU patients. It will combine advanced techniques in EEG network analysis with an online, patient-accessible set of cognitive tests for ICU survivors.

If successful, the results could transform care for patients suffering from severe brain injuries within Canada and abroad.

It’s a perfect marriage of two areas of expertise … You can only take opportunities where they exist and this was one opportunity that we were not going to miss.” ~ Dr. Adrian Owen

“We’d really like to develop prognostic tools that give people more information about what the quality of life [of the patient] is likely to be with survival,” said Owen. “Not only indicators about who is going to survive, but also what they might experience as a survivor.

“Having ways of assessing ICU patients and predicting what their outcome is likely to be is crucially important for the way these patients are assessed. Very few people have looked at the long-term consequences of a serious brain injury, both in the ICU and during recovery at home, and that’s really a key factor in understanding prognosis.”

Without the collaboration grant, it’s unlikely Owen and Blain-Moraes would have been able to work together. There are other elements that makes this project well-suited for the grant: “It’s high-risk, it’s novel, it involves expertise from McGill and Western – and collaboration is essential for it to happen at all. Having a framework that reduces barriers for collaborative research is really important. BrainsCAN and HBHL’s McGill-Western Collaboration Grant program facilitates this framework.”

The McGill-Western Collaboration Grant projects will begin over the next six months, with each project co-led by one McGill and one Western faculty member. The program was made possible by a combined grant of $150 million over seven years to BrainsCAN and HBHL, awarded by The Canada First Research Excellence Fund (CFREF). This fall’s recipients are the first group of research teams to receive the McGill-Western Collaboration Grant awards. The next call for grant applications will begin in 2019.

The other McGill-Western Collaboration Grants:

  • Tim Bussey (Western) and Mallar Chakravarty (McGill) will use touchscreen technology and high resolution Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) to study the influence of midlife chronic stress, a significant risk factor for Alzheimer disease, on cognitive dysfunction and the underlying changes in brain structure. The data will be available in Western’s new open-access touchscreen behaviour database ( for analysis by researchers around the world.
  • Jessica Grahn (Western) and Robert Zatorre (McGill) will create an auditory-oriented multimodal neuroimaging database, giving researchers access to neural circuitry data to test new hypotheses and serve as a baseline for studies involving disorders of hearing.
  • Ingrid Johnsrude (Western) and Neda Ladbon-Bernasconi (McGill) will use functional-MRI mapping of the brain to identify the location of abnormalities for people with epilepsy.
  • Julio Martinez-Trujillo (Western) and Claudio Cuello (McGill) aim to develop an Alzheimer disease model with the goal of creating a platform, not currently available to researchers, to study cognitive impairment.
  • Julio Martinez-Trujillo (Western) and Sylvain Williams (McGill) will examine hippocampal neurons in memory formation with an aim to understand better how we learn and think, and how this is affected in memory disorders.
  • Lisa Saksida (Western) and Mark Brandon (McGill) will use novel neurotechnologies to examine brain activity during behavioural experiments with the goal of understanding how specific aspects of the brain are involved in memory.

Why it’s important:

  • It marks the functional beginning of team-based research between two of the world’s most accomplished neuroscience centres.
  • The projects represent more than the sum of their component parts, building on the expertise of different researchers in different centres to conduct novel neuroscience that neither centre could accomplish alone.
  • The $150-million grant from The Canada First Research Excellence Fund facilitates and inspires work that would not otherwise have been possible.

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