It is not a large a leap, Uma Venkatasubramanian insists, between her degree in electrical engineering and her PhD in neuroscience. “Both are about signal processing. Everything in electronics is about signals and so are the workings of the brain.”
Venkatasubramanian is using electroencephalography (EEGs) to research specifically what is happening in a baby’s brain during delirium: what signals are firing or failing to fire, and what connections are processing differently from the norm when disease or serious illness makes them delirious.
“I’m always interested in learning new things and always looking to make a difference,” she said.
But there’s deeper reason this work holds meaning: her daughter spent 53 days in neonatal intensive care when she was born two years ago, and Venkatasubramanian and her husband, also a neuroscientist, know the anxiety parents feel when their children are ill. And while their daughter is bright, happy and healthy today, “This became the strongest reason and motivation for my husband and me to want to help children.”
Venkatasubramanian is one of three newly named inaugural research fellows of the Western Institute for Neuroscience. Officially launched last February, the Western Institute for Neuroscience aims to provide a framework for coordinating neuroscience expertise across Western, Lawson Health Research Institute, London Health Sciences Centre and other campus and community collaborators.
Each of the new research fellows is co-supervised by a clinician and a basic neuroscientist.
Venkatasubramanian will be working with Rishi Ganesan, a pediatric intensive care physician-researcher with additional expertise in pediatric neurocritical care, and with computer science professor Yalda Mohsenzadeh. She jumped at the chance to study and work at Western, primarily because of “top-notch neuroscience people,” including Dr. Adrian Owen (her husband’s supervisor) who is, she said “a great mentor directly and indirectly to many people.”
Her research will provide insights into the underlying mechanisms of delirium and may lead to the development of biomarkers that could help physicians predict and prevent delirium.
Connecting the wires
Kathleen Lyons earned an undergraduate degree in psychology, but it took her awhile to realize she was less interested in how humans behave than in the wiring and connections of the brain itself.
When that became clear, Western was the obvious choice for her doctoral studies.
“For cognitive neuroscience, [Western is] such a powerhouse of a school,” said Lyons, whose PhD supervisors are professors Adrian Owen (psychology and physiology and pharmacology) and Bobby Stojanoski (psychology).
“It’s such an exciting field that it’s easy to be motivated,” Lyons said.
Lyons is using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to study whether, and how, sensory processing and neural connections might be different among children with autism and ADHD.
They may process movies differently, for example, or be more sensitive to loud sounds or clothing tags.
“If these sensory profiles do lead to children experiencing the world differently, there may be ways we can help children learn in the classroom or be less distracted by tactile sensitivities they may have in the class.”
During her Western Institute for Neuroscience fellowship, Lyons will be working with psychology professor Ryan Stevenson, whose research specialty is sensory perception among neurotypical and special populations, and pediatric psychiatry professor Rob Nicolson.
Neuroscience by the numbers
Roberto Budzinski is a physicist who is taking a mathematical approach to the neuroscience of epilepsy.
His project combines mathematical modeling and computational neuroscience with clinical data from epilepsy patients to understand how neurons synchronize during seizures.
“The goal is to develop a new analytical framework and then a model that can predict brain activity during a seizure,” he said. It’s an approach that may lead to better ways of treating epilepsy.
Budzinski, who has a PhD from Federal University of Paraná in Brazil, will be working with mathematics professor Lyle Muller and clinical neurosciences professor Seyed Mirsattari of the Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry.
The many different fields and disciplines of neuroscience lend themselves well to understanding the mysteries of the brain, Budzinski said; the field is far more than medicine and psychology. “We are seeing a lot of people coming from math, physics and computer science backgrounds to study neuroscience.”